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A young boy cowers in fear in front of his computer.

 In this 24/7 digital age, bullying is no longer limited to the classroom or playground. So how can we keep our children safe from bullies in the online world?

‘Speak even if your voice shakes’. These were the words carefully pencilled on a drawing by 14-year-old Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett before she took her own life, and later shared by her courageous father, Tick, as he spoke out about the cyberbullying she suffered.

The drawing, and Tick’s heartfelt plea for parents to talk to their children about the threat of cyberbullies, has been shared across the world since Dolly’s tragic death in January. The phrase, coined by American social activist Maggie Kuhn, and the Everetts’ tragic story have helped drive momentum for action, catapulting cyberbullying into the media and political agenda.

Dolly’s story has shone a light on the insidious nature of cyberbullying and her Northern Territory family – parents Tick and Kate, and sister Meg – have been overwhelmed with offers of support since establishing their charity, Dolly’s Dream, aimed at raising awareness around bullying, anxiety, depression and youth suicide.

The experience, bravely shared by the Everett family, raised many seemingly unanswerable and heartbreaking questions for parents everywhere. What is cyberbullying? How can we protect young people? And how do we break down the barriers that prevent victims from asking for help?

Kayla Steele and Mitch Byrne are researching the psychology of cyberbullying at the University of Wollongong.

Honours Psychology student Kayla Steele and Associate Professor Mitch Byrne from UOW’s School of Psychology are researching cyberbullying with a timely and unique study.

Sharing experiences of cyberbullying

These questions have been tackled by a timely and unique study by researchers at the University of Wollongong, based on responses from 975 high school students who shared their experiences of and coping mechanisms for online bullying.

Cyberbullying has been linked to higher levels of depression, insomnia, substance abuse and suicidal thoughts. Dual cyberbullying victims/perpetrators have greater rates of interpersonal and conduct problems, and increased suicide risk. Suicide is the leading causing death of young Australians aged 15-44 and accounts for more than 30 per cent of deaths, according to statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics.

It is hoped the findings of the carefully designed study can be translated into evidence-based programs aimed at building resilience, encouraging those being bullied to seek help, and breaking down the victim/perpetrator cycle of cyberbullying.

We need to get in early and enhance resilience, normalise help-seeking behaviour and focus strongly on building strong relationships with teachers.

Associate Professor Mitch Byrne

Described by Associate Professor Mitch Byrne from UOW’s School of Psychology as “a very valuable piece of contemporary research”, the study, led by Honours Psychology student Kayla Steele, details the types of behaviour that constitute cyberbullying, how prevalent they are, what young people do to cope and who they trust to help them. It also unpicks gender differences in perpetration and seeking help.

‘Traditional’ bullying behaviours, such as physical attacks and social exclusion, have long been a focus of research, but cyberbullying is relatively less understood, Professor Byrne says.

The explosion of social media and connectivity resulting from mass smartphone use means bullying behaviour is not restricted by time or physical space. Online bullies can target their victims 24/7 and can hide behind anonymous or fake accounts.

One in five young people have been victims of cyberbullying and one in 10 have been perpetrators, according to Kayla’s analysis of responses from 975 high students from year seven to year 10. There is evidence from other studies of a spike in victims at around 14-15 years old, and boys are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying, according to the study.

“I think it’s really important that young people are given a voice and are listened to,” Kayla says.

What is cyberbullying?

Broadly, cyberbullying is defined as any behaviour, by individuals or groups and performed through electronic or digital media, which repeatedly communicates hostile or aggressive messages intended to inflict harm or discomfort on others.

There are seven cyberbullying modalities:

  • Flaming – Online fights where angry and rude comments are exchanged
  • Denigration – Posting mean or inappropriate messages online to make fun of someone
  • Exclusion – Intentionally leaving someone out of an online group or activity
  • Outing – Sharing secrets about someone online, including private information, photos and videos or sharing unflattering or private message
  • Impersonation – Pretending to be someone else when sending or posting mean or false messages
  • Harassment – Repeatedly sending insulting or threatening messages
  • Cyberstalking – Continuous harassment or denigration, including threats of physical harm, aimed to intimidate and create fear

The study

Much of the existing research around bullying, cyber and otherwise, has not fully exposed the many nuances that it involves. As Kayla explains, “There is a tendency for it to be used as a blanket term, but it is a much more nuanced phenomenon.”

Students surveyed for Kayla’s study were shown several vignettes depicting bullying and cyberbullying before being surveyed, anonymously, about their own experiences, including questions about victim and perpetrator behaviour.

  • Simone’s ex-friend has been repeatedly sending Simone rude and hurtful messages and calling her inappropriate names on Facebook Messenger. Simone has asked her ex-friend to stop messaging her but she refuses.
  • Someone has made a fake Facebook profile for Alexandra and has been pretending to be her online. The person has been posting untrue Facebook statuses about Alexandra and her friends. Alexandra is very worried and upset.
  • Lisa’s friendship group recently made a secret Facebook group. Lisa asked to be added to the group, however her friends refused. Lisa’s friends have been posting mean things about Lisa in the secret Facebook group. Lisa is very hurt and upset by what has happened.

I think it’s really important that young people are given a voice and are listened to.

Kayla Steele

The results

The research revealed boys were more likely to identify themselves as both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying, where previous studies have suggested girls are more likely to be victims and boys the perpetrators, Kayla says.

The students were also asked about their most recent cyberbullying experience, what they did and whether they thought their response had been helpful. Boys are likely to either do nothing, to log off the platform or delete the cyberbully.

There were also gender differences when it came to seeking help, with male students more likely to confide in a so-called formal source, such as a mental health professional, and girls seeking out informal sources of help and support, such as family and friends.

Initial analysis of the study’s findings also indicates that younger victims of cyberbullying may graduate to become perpetrators, with year seven students more likely to be victims and year 10 pupils more likely to be perpetrators, suggesting early intervention is vital.

 Cyberbullying in numbers

  • 1 in 5 young people have been victims of cyberbullying
  • 1 in 10 young people have been perpetrators
  • A spike in victims occurs around the 14-15 age bracket
  • Boys are more likely to be both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying

The importance of speaking up

“We are not going to roll back the clock. This social connectivity is not going to change – it’s going to continue to be part of our lives – and there is also a great number of potential benefits from using social media. So we need to educate students about how to use it positively,” Professor Byrne says.

“We need to get in early and enhance resilience, normalise help-seeking behaviour and focus strongly on [younger high school] students building strong relationships with teachers so they cease to become victims, or cease to be affected so much by being a victim and are less likely to become perpetrators,” Professor Byrne says. “That is a really good place to start.”

Professor Byrne says the death of Dolly Everett shined a light on the dark underbelly of teenage social networks and reinforced the importance of encouraging victims to seek help if they are experiencing cyberbullying.

“One of the predominant comments that came through in the news reporting [of Dolly’s death] was people saying I had no idea she was feeling this way,” Professor Byrne says. “But part of the problem is if the kids don’t have the skills, strategies, knowledge or belief about seeking help, they are not going to share that information.”

Associate Professor Mitch Byrne at the University of Wollongong's School of Psychology.

“We’re talking about a whole of school or whole of community approach that changes the belief structure about appropriate ways to behave” – Associate Professor Mitch Byrne

Kayla says the main factors that stop young people from reporting online bullies include concerns about punishment – particularly having their devices removed – and fear of stigma.

“Education is far more powerful than punishment,” Kayla says. “Technology is so pertinent to the formation of young people’s identities that to take away that aspect of their identity or to punish them is not really teaching them anything about how to use technology in a positive way.”

The findings have the researchers excited about the potential to work with schools to help create environments that foster the kind of behaviour likely to encourage victims to speak up. And teachers could play a fundamental role.

“We’re talking about a whole of school or whole of community approach that changes the belief structure about appropriate ways to behave,” Professor Byrne says. “It’s about skilling kids in talking about their feelings and their experiences, and approaching individuals in a way that’s going to lead to an outcome that they value.”

A young boy hides his face in front of his computer after experiencing cyberbullying.

Keeping our children safe in the online world is just as important as keeping them safe in the playground and classroom.

The role of teachers in prevention and intervention

The researchers were interested in the role of teachers because they are adults with whom a young person has the most contact besides their parents. Teachers often have access to both victims and cyberbullies, and could be supported to play a vital role in combating the rise of cyberbullying, according to the research, which pinpoints the barriers to young victims speaking up.

“People would normally define teachers as being a formal source of help because they have a professional relationship with students. One of the novel findings of our study was that students would seek help from teachers that they have an attachment to – and see that as an informal source of help,” Kayla explains.

While high school students might be reluctant to seek help from a school counsellor, due to concerns about being stigmatised, they are more likely to confide in an available, supportive teacher with whom they have a connection, Kayla’s research reveals.

“That’s really important in terms of prevention and intervention,” Professor Byrne says. “We need to be upskilling teachers in not only the ability to recognise when a young person is experiencing distress, but also the ability to respond to that appropriately.”

The researchers will report their findings back to the schools that participated in the study and hope they can be used to develop intervention programs to encourage more young people to seek help.

If you have been or are experiencing bullying or cyberbullying, there is help available:

Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (24/7 crisis support)

headspace: 1800 650 890 (direct clinical services)

Anyone in immediate danger should call Triple Zero (000).

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