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It’s the permanence of online abuse that makes cyberbullying so damaging for children

Just like a punch to the stomach. Sad teenager by Sabphoto/Shutterstock

We are currently experiencing an epidemic of cyberbullying in schools that has taken the educational community by surprise. One new UK study of children’s digital habits found that online bullying has overtaken traditional forms bullying, with 12% of children now suffering cyberbulling compared to 9% face-to-face.

Changes in the way children communicate via social media are occurring so fast that there is a sense of panic among many parents, teachers and healthcare professionals that we are just not doing enough to protect children from becoming victims of cyberbullying. Only now is the important question being asked – what’s so different about cyberbullying?

In cyberspace, bullying can occur without the bully seeing the victim’s immediate reaction. At the same time, there are more opportunities for the cyberbully to maintain anonymity. This allows the bully to feel more empowered through the disinhibition of conventional expectations about acceptable social behaviour and by not being in direct face-to-face contact with the victim.

But perhaps the most merciless feature of cyberbullying is that posts can continue to exist for a long time, accessible by the victim and by others. What is posted in cyberspace can become permanent, and have long-lasting ramifications for victims.

Taking pleasure in distress

Bullying comes in many forms, including taunting, physical aggression, and deliberately isolating the victim. But it is essential to make a distinction between one-off instances of violent and aggressive behaviour and the prolonged and repeated victimisation that constitutes the heart of the bullying process.

In true cases of bullying, as distinct from unintentional bullying, the bully is fully aware of the distress that is being caused and the taking of pleasure in this distress is the real reason why the bully maintains their focus on a victim.

But establishing the amount of bullying that goes on in schools is very difficult, since only a small proportion of cases are reported to teachers.

A number of studies have looked at the long-term consequences of bullying on the victim’s psychological adjustment and educational progress. Not only are victims of frequent and prolonged bullying made to suffer, but they may also develop mental health problems. They can become truants or school refusers, do less well at school academically than they would otherwise have done, and in extreme cases are driven to commit suicide.

The permanence of cyber abuse

Traditional bullying can also be a potential warning sign of a move into cyberspace. One of the similarities with traditional bullying in schools is the persistent aggressive behaviour by one pupil towards another, intended to cause the victim to suffer. This prolonged and repeated victimisation can also happen in cases of cyberbullying.

Being a victim of cyberbullying can lead to low self-esteem, depression, anxiety and psychosomatic problems like headaches and sleep disturbances. It can also lead to reduced concentration, increased school absences, alienation, lower academic achievement, negative perceptions of the school climate and also suicide attempts.

Incidences of cyberbullying typically include sending angry, rude or vulgar messages about a person to an online group or to a person via email or messaging. But it also extends to other forms of online harassment and posting material about a person that contains sensitive or embarrassing information including forwarding private messages or images. Cruelly excluding someone from an online group can also be seen as cyberbullying.

The fact that cyberbullies’ comments and images can be accessed any time and by anyone, often indefinitely, only augments the cyberbully’s pleasure in causing distress to the victim. In fact, in some cases, the desire of the cyberbully to expose their identity on the internet using social websites is much more intense than the fear of suffering any type of retaliation from the teachers, head teachers or parents.

When schoolyard bullies become cyberbullies it is crucial to note that teachers, parents and health workers have to think together about policies concerning the practices of bullying and cyberbullying.

Strategies to tackle cyberbullying include developing a positive ethos and a whole-school anti-bullying policy that includes online forms of abuse. Victims should be listened to, and mediation between bullies and victims promoted.

What’s clear is that we need to wake-up to the disruption that cyberbullying can have on children’s lives. Just because it doesn’t happen on the school playground, it doesn’t mean online abuse can be ignored.

This article is part of a series on bullying. Read the other articles in the series here.

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