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Many children and teenagers experience cyberbullying at school and in their social networks. Adults need to be aware of what is occurring in young peoples' lives and recognise the signs.

Cyberbullying is on the rise worldwide and in South Africa. Just recently, a young learner committed suicide after allegedly being bullied by friends on WhatsApp groups. This heart-breaking incident should be a wake-up call to parents and everyone working with children.

Cyberbullying is when a person, or group of people, intentionally and consistently intimidates, offends, threatens, or embarrasses another person or group of people, through the use of digital platforms, for example a website or chat room on the Internet, social media, or mobile devices such as a cellphone. Global market research firm Ipsos defines cyberbullying specifically with regards to children under the age of 18.1

“We hear more about cases among the youth, but this definitely happens with adults too,” says Megan Hosking, psychiatric intake clinician at Akeso psychiatric hospitals. “With more public discussion and reporting on the topic, awareness of cyberbullying is also increasing. Adults are often more skilled at hiding their online identities, and use technology differently to cause harm. American studies show that up to 40% of adults have been exposed to cyberbullying, 2 with about 40% of the bullying being driven by someone they don’t know. In South Africa, we have seen a marked increase in incidents among the younger generation, with a higher percentage (up to 65%) of this bullying is from a classmate rather than a stranger.”

Hosking says one of the possible reasons why cyberbullying has become such a widespread phenomenon is the increase in the use of social media and wider accessibility of online platforms. “It is also possible to remain anonymous in many of these interactions, reducing the risk of consequence for hurtful behaviours. Moreover, there is a psychological distance between the bully and the victim, reducing potential empathy on the part of bullies towards their victims.”3

How to spot a cyberbully

It can be challenging to identify a cyberbully, as it’s not always done in the open. However, it’s advisable to look out for some types of behaviour on online platforms:

  • Making mean or negative comments
  • Spreading rumours
  • Sharing pictures and screenshots of messages that don’t belong to them
  • Secrecy what they are posting, sharing or commenting on when using the internet, mobile phones, or social media4 ;

The signs and symptoms of cyberbullying

Children who are being cyberbullied need help. It’s important to look out for signs that a child may be subjected to cyberbullying. These include the following:

  • Changes in communication patterns5
  • Changes in mood
  • Changes in behaviour
  • Changes in appetite
  • Refusing to go to school6
  • Not wanting to see friends

“Pay attention to changes in your child’s use of their devices and social media as well,” adds Hosking. “Your child may become more secretive in their habits, and jumpy or anxious. The symptoms are similar to those observed in other types of bullying, and parents and teachers are mostly well placed to notice these signs. Encourage teenagers to speak openly about any issues they are encountering and suggest they do not respond to any online attacks.”

Cyberbullying has serious consequences for many victims. Young people can experience emotional trauma, causing them to lose self-esteem and confidence. There are risks of depression, anxiety, and self-harm, as well as isolation from friends and family. In addition, there can be a negative impact on the child’s reputation and on their performance at school. They may also struggle with current and future relationships as a result of cyberbullying.

How children can protect themselves from cyberbullying

Talk to your child about cyberbullying and self-protection. These are some of the ways you can encourage them to protect themselves:

  • Never share passwords and personal data online
  • Don’t share private photos online
  • Be careful what you post online – remember that once the information is out there it can be shared by others who may not have the best of intentions. Think carefully about whether you are comfortable that other people (and strangers) can get to know about what you are posting.
  • Don’t post anything in the height of emotion – wait before posting or responding to something if you’re angry, sad, or hurt by someone.
  • Don’t participate in posts that are bullying someone – don’t “like” or share them, but rather report them when you come across them
  • Before making a comment about someone or something, think about how you would feel if you were on the receiving end of the comment7

To help someone who is being cyberbullied it’s advisable to report the content; as most social media sites allow users to report unsuitable content, whether you are the victim or an observer.7

“It’s important to listen to your child’s story and fears without judgment. If you suspect they are being bullied, reach out to them,” says Hosking. “If your child’s friend is being bullied, get your child to encourage the friend to seek help and support from their parents, a teacher, a counsellor or someone who can possibly assist further.7 It’s important to keep records of every instance of cyberbullying in case legal action is considered.” Teach your child to stand up against any form of abusive behaviour, and not to be a passive bystander.

According to the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, perpetrators of cyberbullying can be criminally charged with assault, criminal defamation, extortion, or crimen injuria depending on the specific case. You can apply for a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act 17 of 2011 at your nearest magistrate’s court.8

What the statistics in South Africa say

  • 88% of adults report being aware of cyberbullying1
  • Up to 75% believe that anti-bullying measures are not sufficient to have an impact on cyberbullying1
  • One in three parents know a child in their community that is the victim of cyberbullying – this is even higher in Africa (54%)1

If you or your child requires professional help, contact Akeso on 0861 435 787.


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