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Social media and cyberbullying  - the positive steps schools can take to support students. 

Bullying, like so much else in today’s world, has gone online. Cyberbullying affects significant numbers of Australian students. Learn more about cyberbullying, including what schools can do to help. 

Cyberbullying is a very real part of Australian students’ lives. In the last six months, almost half of all young people (44%) have had a ‘negative online experience’, including 15% who have received abuse or threats. 

Cyberbullying is the use of the internet to repeatedly harass or attack an individual, and can take many forms – according the eSafety Commissioner, some of the most common are:

  • Sending derogatory or threatening messages 
  • Sharing, or threatening to share, embarrassing photos or videos   
  • Spreading malicious gossip  
  • Creating fake accounts in the victim’s name 
  • Lying about your identity to deceive the victim  

The causes of cyberbullying 

It’s a growing problem and one that worsened during the pandemic, with enforced lockdowns meaning that young people spent even more time online. According to Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s  eSafety Commissioner, the pandemic saw a 21% increase in youth-based cyberbullying.    

Even without a pandemic, young people spend a lot of time online – the average young Australian is on the internet for just over two hours a day, and 93% use the internet to chat with their friends. There are a lot of benefits to social media, and not being on it is simply not an option for most young people.  

But social media has also changed the nature of bullying: firstly, it grants the bully anonymity. If a bully starts a fight in the playground, they are seen and known, but online they can hide behind a cloak of invisibility. They need no physical strength or size; they do not need to be actually with their victim and are one-step removed. They don’t inflict any bruises, scars or physical damage - it’s bullying at a distance.  

Secondly, social media vastly increases the reach and impact of the bullying – an incident that is filmed, for example, can be seen and shared by thousands of people, instantaneously. Messages can be sent to the victim in their own home, their own room. Once shared, even if later removed, there is no way of knowing exactly how far the humiliation of the victim has spread.  

The role of social media 

The social media platforms most commonly used by cyberbullies are, not surprisingly, almost directly correlated with those used most frequently by young Australians: 

  • YouTube 79% (used by 78%) 
  • Instagram – 25% (used by 89%) 
  • Snapchat – 19% (used by 75%) 
  • Facebook – 11% (used by 56%) 
  • TikTok – 7% (used by 60%) 
  • Twitter – 3% (used by 20%)  

The impact of cyberbullying 

The fallout from cyberbullying is immense, in terms of mental health and education. According to Headspace, 70% of young Australians with psychological distress have been bullied online at some point. A survey by global youth charity Ditch the Label found that when young people experience cyberbullying, the impacts include depression (36%), suicidal thoughts (24%) and self-harm (23%).  

Education suffers too - 20% of victims avoid school due to cyberbullying, and when they are in school, victims of online bullying say they are treated more negatively by other students.  

The perpetrators are impacted too – bullying is a known contributing factor to antisocial, abusive and criminal behaviour.   

So whilst its reach extends way beyond the school gates, cyberbullying is certainly an issue for schools. They need to be aware, educated and actively engaged in minimising this scourge of young lives and the dreadful harm that follows in its wake.  

What can schools do? 

Australia has an eSafety Commissioner – the world’s first government agency for online safety. eSafety provides guidance and recommendations for schools, as well as for victims, parents and bullies. The e-Safety Commissioner recommends that schools: 

Encourage open discussion – over half of all victims of bullying do not tell anyone about what is going on, and only 21% tell a school, or report to a social media network. Talking about bullying helps to give students the confidence to ask for help if they should need it.  

Include the whole community – ideally parents, carers, teachers and students should all be included in discussions of bullying.  

Support diversity – students who are neuro-diverse, have a disability or are LGBTQI+ are more prone to bullying.  

Teach online safety lessons - eSafety provides offers classroom resources including lesson plans, worksheets and videos. They also offer free online safety training programs for teachers, school counsellors, and support staff. 

Encourage students to be upstanders – give all students the confidence and language to support their peers if they know they are being cyberbullied.  

Report cyberbullying – schools should inform themselves about how to report cyberbullying, initially to the platform on which it occurs, or to eSafety.  

Refer students to support services - help students who have been cyberbullied (and their parents) to find the support they need, through organisations such as Kids Helpline and Headspace.  

For young Australians, so much of their life is online, and that goes for bullying too. Schools can play an important part in educating and supporting students in the fight to reduce cyberbullying.  

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