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Getting to the Heart of Cyberbullying

Dr. Danielle Quigley

“We all know the awful humiliation of a person laughing at you. But that feeling increases tenfold when it seems like everyone is laughing at you. Scrolling through the comments, the world imploded — and took my heart with it.”

– Caitlin Seida (salon.com)

Caitlin Seida wrote a piece for Salon.com  entitled, My Embarrassing Picture Went Viral in which she described her experience when someone copied a photo from her Facebook page and posted it to various websites with the intention of mocking her. Seida felt humiliated, but with support from a friend, she took control of the situation. She called people out on their mean comments and sent copyright violation and take down notices to the websites hosting the posts of her picture. She changed her privacy settings on her own social media account and has become an advocate for other people whose photos get passed around as hers did.

Stories like Seida’s strike a chord among many of us and remind us that no one deserves this abuse. The repeated nature of the abuse she experienced is critical to the definition of cyberbullying. Bullying is defined by:

1)    unwanted aggression,

2)    a real or perceived power differential between the person(s)                bullying and the person(s) victimized,

3)    repetition; and

4)    negative impact on the person who is victimized

These features also define cyberbullying. The public nature of cyberbullying contributes to the repeated nature and the impact.  Every time a picture is re-posted, someone comments on that post, or someone new finds out about the post or when the person victimized must ask to have a post removed, the person is revictimized. Cyberbullying can take many forms, and the ever-evolving nature of technology means that the list of examples of cyberbullying is always changing. Here are just a few:

  • Using technology (email, social networking sites, texts, etc.) to spread cruel and sometimes threatening messages directly to a person.
  • Using technology to spread photos, messages, gossip, secrets, or rumours about another person that will damage that person’s reputation.
  • Breaking into an email account or social networking site and sending hurtful materials to others under an assumed identity or changing the profile to reflect sexual, racist and other content that may offend others.
  • Creating blogs, websites or polls that have stories, cartoons, pictures or jokes ridiculing others.
  • Deliberately excluding others from instant messaging and email contact lists to hurt, embarrass, or alienate them.

In any of these behaviours, a power differential likely exists where the person victimized feels powerless against the viral nature of some of these acts and is disempowered through the abuse. Cyberbullying is often distinguished from traditional (e.g., verbal, social, physical) bullying, but there is significant overlap between them: both occur in the context of social relationships and both often occur in the presence of witnesses.

For Canadian youth, rates of cyber-victimization are fairly consistent for girls in grades 6-10 (between 17% and 19%). For boys, rates of cyber-victimization increase across grades (from 11% in grade 6 to 19% in grade 10). And many youth do not define cyberbullying in the same way adults do.  Consequently, it is likely an underreported problem and the prevalence rates may be much higher. In general, youth don’t think adults can help with these sorts of issues so they often don’t report when it’s happening. They also do not tell because they fear adults will take away the technology (e.g., the phone or computer).

Because bullying involves a power imbalance, youth need adult support to right that imbalance.  They also need adults to listen to them and to hear what is happening in their lives, without the fear of losing their technology. Technology can be a social lifeline for youth. It is important, therefore, that adults help create safe boundaries about the use; however, taking it away may further increase the risk of victimization for the adolescent. Creating opportunities to have conversations about technology can lead to discussions about what behaviours are bullying and help youth make an important step toward identifying bullying online and stopping it.

Adults spend a lot of time coaching their children in how to interact in social situations, but very little time talking about how to have proper online social behaviour.  Interacting online is even more complicated than face-to-face interaction because social cues are not available to show individuals how their online behaviour affects others in the moment. When we can’t see a person’s facial reaction, body language, or immediate verbal response, it’s hard to gauge whether they thought something was funny or hurtful. People are also more likely to do things online that they would not do in a face-to-face interaction because they believe they are anonymous in the online space. But perceived online anonymity is not real – as a user, you leave digital footprints wherever you go. If you are an educator looking to explore this concept with your students, MediaSmarts has a great online lesson plan about this issue.

Children and adolescents need adult support.  Online relationships are complicated and more challenging in some ways than face-to-face relationships.  Take the time to talk with the youth in your life and help them understand cyberbullying and how they may be contributing to it or participating in it, without even knowing.

Want to learn more?

PREVNet has an entire section of the website dedicated to learning more about cyberbullying. For information for teens, parents, and educators, click here.

© 2017 PREVNet. Tous droits réservés.