There have always been bullies. Bullying may, in fact, be intrinsic to human nature. Our primate relatives commonly resort to bullying and to vocal and physical intimidation to enhance their social status, acquire mates and compete for food or shelter. Children, however, generally lack such biological imperatives, so what makes a kid become a bully? More importantly, how can teachers and parents recognize and address it?
Which brings us to cyberbullying. Cyberbullying is generally accepted to mean the use of technology to threaten, intimidate or shame another person. It has many forms: harassment, insults, threats, rumors, outing, social ostracism and more.
It represents a quantum leap for bullies. What is especially insidious is that they can remain anonymous. Playground bullies of earlier generations couldn’t ply their trade without revealing themselves. But today’s social media platforms allow savvy users to remain hidden or to set up false identities that render them invisible to their targets. This anonymity also confers a sense of security, of confidence that there will be no adverse consequences. In fact, this phenomenon has been given a name: the Online Disinhibition Effect. And because such bullies may not witness the reactions of their victims, they are less likely to feel remorse.
Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon. Google Scholar reports that, prior to 2004, there were no mentions of cyberbullying in published scholarly research. Since then, it has mushroomed. In a September, 2018 Pew survey, 59 percent of U.S. teens reported having been cyberbullied in some way. Girls and boys are equally victimized, but girls are more likely than boys to remain silent about it.
According to The Atlantic, “No app is more integral to teens’ social lives than Instagram.” It has more than one billion monthly users, mostly in Gen Z (born after 1986), and it is a significant refuge for cyberbullies. Fully 20 percent of users from 12 to 20 years old say they have been bullied on that social platform. In recognition of that, Instagram has launched an anti-bullying initiative “aimed at improving teenagers’ mental health.”
One of the features being tested — in seven countries, but not in the U.S. — is the hiding of “Likes.” Likes on Facebook, Instagram and elsewhere have acquired such status that some users go to extreme lengths to increase their number of Likes. Under the program now being tested, users of Facebook and Instagram will only be able to see their own Likes, which will be hidden from others in the hopes of diminishing their tyranny.
Some of the warning signs that a child is being cyberbullied are:
- children appear upset, sad or mad after being online;
- a significant change in the amount of online activity;
- becoming withdrawn, anxious or avoiding social situations;
- refusing to go to school or making excuses not to;
- turning off or hiding a device when an adult walks by;
- a drop in grades or acting in uncharacteristic ways.
As important as it is to identify children who are victims of cyberbullying, it is also important to identify the cyberbullies themselves. “Sticks and stones can break my bones but names can never hurt me” no longer applies.
In the U.S., there is a 24/7 cyberbullying hotline, run by the Department of Health & Human Services at 800-273-8255.