Cyberbullying – a clearer focus

I felt it was time to update some of the advice and information I have previously shared about online bullying. – As  Safer Internet Day approaches there are many articles appearing online about ‘cyberbullying’ and conferences and events taking place, dedicated only to this type of bullying.

Bullying is behaviour that makes people feel frightened, hurt, threatened and left out. It impacts on a person’s ability to feel in control of themselves (their ‘agency’) and to respond effectively. This behaviour can harm physically and emotionally and the threat is typically sustained. This behaviour takes place in a variety of places, including online.

The research I undertook in late 2014 provided a picture of what types of behaviour children were experiencing and where it was taking place. The findings confirmed what many already thought while continuing to surprise many others.

Face to face bullying accounted for the majority of bullying incidents. The three most common behaviours experienced when being bullied face to face were:

Name calling

Hurtful Comments


8,000 children and young people from across the country took part in the research. 30% of them said they had experienced bullying in the last 12 months. Of the incidents they experienced:

60% took place in person

21% took place both in person and online

19% tool place online only

They also told us that only 6% of bullying started online – and it was usually related to something that happened in school or face to face. The behaviour  can then continue online, face to face and sometimes both.

The three most common behaviour experienced online were:

                Name Calling

                Hurtful Comments

                Verbal Abuse

This shows that there is little difference between the behaviours experienced – only where they took place.

This has helped us work with colleagues to develop local surveys and questionnaires that ask the right questions, not ‘Were you bullied’ and ‘were you cyberbullied?’ But ask ‘Were you bullied?’ ‘What was the behaviour and where did this happen?’ Children and young people were able to tell us very clearly things like ‘I was called names and this happened on the bus and on Facebook’.

There should be little focus on where it took place – it was still bullying.

The findings from the research show that online bullying is more public and more visible. This is what contributes to the notion that it is a ‘bigger’ or ‘increasing’ problem. Bullying behaviour is not always seen by lots of people – threats and manipulative behaviour still takes place largely in private – away form everyone else.  This is still the most common type of bullying; sneaky, under the radar behaviour, carried out in places where there is little or no supervision.

So what are the risks with this?

The main risk is that we have, and often still do, focus heavily on online or cyber bullying and  have almost started to ignore the less public types of bullying.  I even get asked about what has happened to ‘traditional’ bullying. We seem to have developed this notion that the only thing to be concerned about is the stuff that happens online. This is not to say what is happening online isn’t concerning, of course it is, but so is the behaviour our children and young people continue to experience face to face – and sometimes both face to face and online.

We do not need to develop specific polices for online bullying, but we need to ensure that  all of our anti-bullying policies and practices reflect that things happen both face to face and online. This approach is in line with international research and best practice. When we talk about bullying we mean bullying that happens face to face and online.

When talking to children and young people recently about new national policy they told me they found it strange that people still talked about ‘cyber’ bullying as ‘cyber’ is just not a word they use for anything.  The distinction between online and offline isn’t as straightforward as some adults may think. Relationships play out online and in person – whether chatting face to face or  on Twitter or Snapchat – it’s all talking to friends.

Young people told us some very interesting things about their lives online. The majority of young people (81%) consider their online friends to be all or mostly the same as in real life. Only 4% of the 8,000 surveyed said they did not know the people they were ‘friends’ with online.

Crucially, 92% of children who experienced bullying online knew the person bullying them. This goes some way to challenge the ever present line that anonymity is one of the driving factors behind bullying online. Young people interact and socialise with an extended network of other people they are connected to through school, family communities and friendships as well as similar interests in music or sport.

They also use social media  to communicate –the purpose of using smart phones, consoles or laptops is primarily about staying in-touch with friends, something which is as important for young people today as it was 40 years ago. They have different means at their disposal but the principle is the same.

On of the challenges we still face is the belief that if something happens onlineit did not take place in school and the school or teacher cannot do anything about it. Our advice on this has been consistent – we respond to what happened to someone – not where it happened. If a child or young person decides to inform their teacher – they are investing in them as an adult they trust to help them – that last thing we should be doing is sending them away.

I was talking to a teacher about this earlier this week and she feels frustrated that an incident that happened at a swing park between two pupils in the same class is being ignored by some colleagues because of where it took place. The school here is in a great position to help resolve this – they don’t need to do all the work but could lead on helping the children they know feel safer or behave more respectfully. It is the same if it happens on Facebook. Respond to what happened not where or when. Respond to how someone feels – that way you can role model effective ways of dealing with relationship and interpersonal difficulties.

Bullying is also about relationships – not technology.  We must focus on equipping young people with the skills to conduct themselves online in a more respectful manner; the skills to manage their environments safely, and to develop their confidence and abilities to negotiate relationships and problems. This is built on promoting and developing resilience. But we also have to equip parents with the knowledge and understanding about how social media and the other places children and young people go online work; how to make them safe and, most importantly, how to talk to their children about using them. respectme offers free training for parents on this.

‘Cyberbullying’ is bullying; it is about relationships that are not healthy or being managed or role modelled well. It is behaviour done by someone to someone else, it is the ‘where’ this is taking place that is new. The behaviour appears to be migrating, as children spend more time online, the behaviour they have always exhibited and experienced goes with them.

Adult fear and anxiety  has long been the biggest hurdle in dealing with bullying online. It has had a very high media profile at times and it appears ’new’.  For parents or adults who do not use social media or connect with their friends using the internet, this can be a challenging and, at times, bewildering experience.

Lots of colleagues have said they are ‘technophobes’ or are not ‘tech savvy’ and have voiced how much they dislike Facebook or twitter. We have maintained that if you work with children and young people or if you are a parent or carer, that is no longer good enough. You need to know! For some that will require a real effort to spend time and utilise their relationships to learn. We cannot abdicate responsibility for this to software. We need to connect and learn about how young people use the internet and the phones or laptops they access it from.

Many adults have experience of managing risk when working with children and young people, and this is a new place for us to consider. We need to be as imaginative and creative with the internet as we have been in other places.

What is not bullying?

One other phenomenon that has emerged is the conflating of all online behaviours and risks under one heading. Sexting is not bullying, it is largely a consensual thing, part of adolescents exploring relationships and attraction. Forcing someone to take a naked picture of themself or part of their body naked is not bullying, it is abusive and coercive behaviour. Threatening someone to do something sexually is not bullying – it is sexually aggressive behaviour. Some guidance in the UK had stated that grabbing a girl’s chest or putting your hand up her skirt is a type of bullying.  We  do not agree with this.  That behaviour is a type of sexual assault. We must not dilute abusive behaviour. This is not an attempt to demonise children and young people, but to address the fact that if we dilute sexually aggressive behaviour we run the risk of normalising it. People are still of the opinion that ‘bullying is a normal part of growing up’ or ‘It’s just bullying’. This is why we work closely with colleagues who work in areas of violence against women and girls particularly, to make sure we give a consistent message that sexually aggressive behaviour is never acceptable and, while bullying and abusive behaviour can be linked, they are not the same thing.

There have been high profile examples of blackmail, extortion and threatening behaviour online that have been referred to in the media as cyberbullying.  We need to be clear about what we are talking about.  If someone is targeted, and forced to hand over money under the threat that someone will release pictures of them, they are being criminally extorted – not bullied. Using the term ‘cyberbullying’  to describe a host of other abusive behaviours only adds to the fear and confusion on how to respond.

As we move forward we must ensure that we focus on the fact that when we talk about bullying, we are talking about behaviour that happens online and face to face.


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