We must support and enable those at risk of cyberbullying
A 17-year-old girl in India hanged herself after a friend posted intimate photographs of her on social media to take revenge. Bangladeshi national cricketer Shakib Al Hasan faces offensive and obscene comments on a photo of his 4-year-old daughter on social media. A Canadian teen, Amanda Todd, took her own life after being sexually exploited and bullied online for years.
These are not isolated incidents. According to UNICEF and the UN special representative of the secretary-general, one in three young people in 30 countries said they had been victims of online bullying.
Going down memory lane for a couple of years will help many of us remember what it felt like to be harassed and bullied in school or the neighbourhood. Maybe a joke was made about our shortcomings, a kick was inflicted during the football game, or perhaps it was just a simple act of locking the bathroom door from outside. Sometimes it was a silly prank; other times, the pain was intentional. But we remember them even after all these years.
However, one thing that was certain during those times was the ability to forget and heal the wound in the protection of the home. No bully could penetrate the walls of a house, which made us feel safe for a significant portion of each day, while learning to cope with childhood.
However, everything has changed now. Today, a central part of many people's life revolves around internet-enabled electronic devices, especially the young. The use of technology has increased immensely, as has cyberbullying. Unfortunately, the conflicts that once took place on the playground have moved to an invisible plane. There is no escaping the harassment that is essentially everywhere.
In the 21st century, especially during the pandemic, online platforms are the new schoolyards and street corners. Now, cyberbullying can occur anywhere, even at home, through emails, texts, social media, anonymous apps, etc. Digital technology is used to threaten, harass, or cause humiliation over the Internet. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying does not require physical power or face-to-face contact and can occur 24 hours a day. A survey conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Centre says that almost 34 percent of students in middle and high school had been cyberbullied in 2016. This was the most substantial percentage reported since the organisation had started tracking such cases around ten years ago.
Moreover, cyberbullying has been on the rise since the pandemic started. According to a study by L1ght, hate speech among children and teens has risen by 70 percent since students started conducting online classes.
Children are growing up with a misperception of what is normal because most content they see on social media is fabricated and threatening. This kind of negativity influences their academic performance, social adjustment, and self-image. Being a victim of a bully is already a bitter experience; when the internet is added to the equation, it can be highly traumatic.
One of the many reasons online bullying can be so emotionally and psychologically damaging is that it is repetitive. Too often, victims succumb to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and other stress-related conditions. In addition, many have taken their lives due to societal pressure and character assassination after speaking up. Unfortunately, 60 percent of Internet users have either witnessed or have been targeted with cyberbullying. Thus, it is critical to take actions against it, as the effects of cyberbullying can lead to extreme consequences including self-harm. Even sometimes, victims have a relationship with the bully, albeit a destructive one. Under such circumstances, it gets hard for them to fight back or retaliate.
We are gradually learning that unlike the conventional type of bullying, which frequently caused a bodily injury that most parents could see, cyberbullying usually leaves parents unaware of the situation. Therefore, they are unable to help the child in time. Most of the time, children lack the perspective to recognise cyberbullying and put it in a proper context. Therefore, the assistance of parents or an adult is crucial to teaching children the right skills required to shape them for the future.
To combat the situation, Stop Cyberbullying Day was launched by The Cybersmile Foundation on June 17, 2012. The day is internationally recognised and observed annually every third Friday in June to promote a healthy online environment. Stop Cyberbullying Day brings together schools, governments, leaders, institutions, and organisations from all corners of the globe.
People must take necessary action to prevent cyberbullying, whether we choose to be involved directly with the day itself or tackle cyberbullying all year around. Many things can be done, like holding a cyberbullying awareness event at the school, joining the Stop Cyberbullying Day campaign as an official school partner, or partnering up with non-profit organisations in fundraising events. It is imperative that people become affiliated with #StopCyberBullyingDay in speaking out against cyberbullying and abuse of any kind to defend the fundamental human rights of freedom of speech and respect.
As parents, we must teach our children to be respectful on online platforms before becoming active on social media. We should also provide them with helpful information about cyberbullying so that they can come to us as soon as they sense a red flag.
During the ongoing pandemic and afterward, guidance on responsible and secure online behaviour should be a central part of the curriculum. Furthermore, schools must develop pastoral care support, which deals with expanding students' self-esteem, social skills, and ability to handle stress. Children with behavioural issues, emotional problems, or personal difficulties can be helped with pastoral care.
Many schools in the country have started to recognise the importance and urgency of cyberbullying, and some have taken significant measures to look out for their students. For example, different schools have extended counselling sessions for parents. Other than this, the school monitors students' mental health regularly through wellbeing programmes and sessions.
The traditional notion is that bullying usually happens to children. However, that is not the case anymore. According to the Workplace Bullying Survey in 2014, 6.5 million workers were affected by bullying in the workplace. Furthermore, 61 percent said that their employers failed to react to abusive behaviours, both online and physically. As a result, the bullying only stopped once those targeted either quit or were fired. Amongst those, 29 percent said that they contemplated suicide. Workplace cyberbullying results in increased absences, lost productivity, lower employee morale, and stress at work, which ultimately has the power to affect the economy negatively.
Bullying can be traumatising for both children and grownups. The wounds are internal, not physical. In the formative years of life, children are especially vulnerable to being influenced by what others think of them. By listening to and supporting children regularly, we can help them to heal emotionally. We must act now to ensure that everyone is given equal opportunity to adopt technology without fear. Parents and teachers together can help the victim build a strong base of self-esteem, confidence and make them feel supported. It is essential that people feel safe and valued in their school environment.
Dr Shivananda CS is Principal, DPS STS School, Dhaka.