- Cyberbullying is a form of online aggression, usually between age peers.
- It’s important that parents talk with their teenagers about their online life.
- Cybercrime can be punishable and is treated as much as possible as classic crime in a new setting. The focal point is the angel of the offences.
- Schools can contribute to prevention, f.ex. by creating a smartphone-free environment, or by focusing on digital disconnection.
- Are you being bullied online? Ask for help in time. Together, you can reach a solution much faster.
Last summer, it was impossible to avoid ‘happy slapping’ in the news, and more recently, a minor threatened on TikTok to attack her school, which turned out to be an act of cyberbullying. The phenomena are stirring up tempers and fuelling the public debate around bullying (and cyberbullying) and punishment for perpetrators. Stroom talked with experts from a variety of domains, as well as with a victim of cyberbullying.
‘Prevention starts with awareness’
Heidi Vandebosch and Michel Walrave are both professors of Communication Studies at UAntwerp (Faculty of Social Sciences). They study the challenges that digital media pose for society. Together, they provide insight into the impact and prevention of cyberbullying amongst young people.
Teenagers are sometimes strongly driven by their emotions—not only anger, but also boredom, in many cases.
Steps to take as a victim
‘Cyberbullying is a form of online aggression, usually between age peers’, begins Vandebosch. ‘Perpetrators want to do damage, and victims have difficulty defending themselves from their positions. Repetition is involved as well: a person might be attacked multiple times by the same individual, or a perpetrator might distribute messages that are repeatedly viewed and shared.’ In contrast to ‘classic’ bullying, cyberbullying is played out on digital platforms: ‘Young people receive insulting messages on Snapchat, they are excluded from the class WhatsApp group, or embarrassing videos about them are distributed on TikTok…’ She points to two reasons why perpetrators engage in bullying. ‘Teenagers are sometimes strongly driven by their emotions—not only anger, but also boredom, in many cases. Nevertheless, the main goal of bullying is always to gain status.’
Walrave continues. ‘Prevention therefore starts with awareness. Young people have to realise that bullying is not an acceptable way of gaining popularity. In addition, we need to teach all parties involved how they can cope better with situations involving bullying.’
Vandebosch sets out the steps that victims can take. ‘Confide in an adult, like a parent or teacher. You can also turn to peers. Finally, report cyberbullying on digital platforms, in order to have messages or images deleted or to stop further distribution.’
Walrave nods and continues. ‘You should be aware that every minute counts. Bullying messages can spread like wildfire, and this exacerbates their impact and makes it more difficult to delete them. Providers have to intervene very quickly to be able to take something offline. Fortunately, Belgium has several “trusted flaggers”, like Child Focus. They have a direct line to social media sites, and they can act at lightning speed.’
Support from the environment
A victim’s direct environment can play an important, constructive role. Vandebosch gives advice to parents. ‘Make good agreements about digital media. With young children, it’s best to keep an eye on things. With teenagers, you mainly want to create an open culture. If your child comes to you with an online problem situation, stay calm and work together to find solutions. For example, you could contact the appropriate counsellors.’
Shutting off your child’s digital communication is usually not a good idea, notes Walrave. ‘Young people search for help online, or they stay in touch with age peers who support them. You don’t want to close off this positive side of technology. You should also not delete any accounts—they could be used as evidence. It’s important to remember to make screenshots of messages.’
In both offline and online bullying, there are often bystanders. They can play a positive role, according to Vandebosch. ‘They can support the victim and discourage the perpetrators, but there are limits to how.’ In this regard, she refers to the public’s reactions to ‘happy slapping’ last summer.
You should be aware that every minute counts. Bullying messages can spread like wildfire, and this exacerbates their impact and makes it more difficult to delete them.
‘In the past, happy slapping meant senseless violence against a random victim’, explains Walrave, ‘but, today, we know it as a true bullying situation in which perpetrators select and attack their victims in a targeted manner.’ The goal? Maximum impact. ‘The distribution of the images exacerbates the humiliation of the victim and enhances the “prestige” of the perpetrators.’
Vandebosch notes that such videos sometimes provoke violent reactions. ‘People want to teach the perpetrators a lesson. This doesn’t help the victim, and it only generates more attention for the bullying.’
To help young people and adults better cope with cyberbullying situations, Walrave and Vandebosch have created websites, in collaboration with Mediawijs and Medianest. On these sites, they collected testimonies, information and advice. These are all tools for taking preventive or reactive action.
‘These tools are available to support all parties involved’, the two professors emphasise. ‘Victims and their parents, but also perpetrators, bystanders or teachers who would like to do something with bullying (or cyberbullying) in the classroom.’
A continuum between offline and online violence
As Van de Heyning explains, in Belgium, cybercrime is treated as much as possible as classic crime in a new setting. ‘The focal point is the angel of the offences. If the motive is sexual, we turn to the legislation on sexual offences, and so forth.’ It is not the case, however, that every cybercrime is simply a digital translation of ‘classic’ crime. The online context sometimes creates a fundamental difference, as in the case of stalking. ‘In legal terms, a person who shows up at your door unwanted once is not a stalker—repeated occurrence is required. Online, however, the problem is not necessarily that someone is sending a lot of messages, but rather the possibility of being harassed by a mass of people at once, or by one person with multiple accounts. For this reason, there are separate punishments for electronic stalking. A single online occurrence can already be counted as stalking.’
In addition, online and offline violence are increasingly merging. ‘Take fights that suddenly occur in the playground, seemingly without cause—until it turns out that bullying was already taking place online between the young people involved. The reverse occurs as well: physical bullying at school continues on social media.’
Happy slapping is a far-reaching bullying phenomenon with both offline and online components. ‘Legally complex’, states Van de Heyning. ‘There is physical violence, which is punishable. The images are evidence. But what should we do about those who create and distribute them?’ Filming a brawl is not necessarily a criminal offence. ‘The intent plays a role. Gaining status is not the only reason that young people have for filming. Sometimes, they do not know what to do, reflexively reach for their camera, or are under pressure to participate in the brawl in some way.’
Many parents pay too little attention to the online world of their children. They are thus sometimes surprised when a child “suddenly” starts performing poorly at school or develops an eating disorder—behaviour that can stem from a problematic situation online.
And what about those who distribute those images? ‘Once again, the intent is crucial. Freedom of expression is a protected right. Informing people about something through images is allowed. At the same time, however, those who share such brawl videos with the names of the perpetrators, as a call for revenge are invading privacy and inciting violence.’
Role of the parent
Cyberbullying often occurs amongst minors. In juvenile law, parents can be held responsible for damages resulting from offences committed by their children. According to Heyning, however, the role of parents starts in the home. ‘Many parents pay too little attention to the online world of their children. They are thus sometimes surprised when a child “suddenly” starts performing poorly at school or develops an eating disorder—behaviour that can stem from a problematic situation online.’ Van de Heyning advocates discussing the online lives of young people at home. ‘As a parent, by showing explicit interest in these experiences, you can signal to your children that they can also come to you with problems from the digital realm.’
‘Full commitment to empathy’
Alumna Karin Heremans is the director of the GO! Royal Atheneum of Antwerp. She has extensive experience in the prevention of radicalisation and polarisation. For example, she is responsible for policy on Flemish community education, and she is the Belgian ambassador of the Radicalisation Awareness Network within the European Commission. Together with her teaching staff, she strives to achieve more empathy and dialogue at school.
Each year, the GO! Royal Atheneum of Antwerp works according to an important topic. This year, the topic is Out of Connection: working towards digital disconnection and more physical connection. ‘Many teenagers are exhibiting problematic smartphone usage’, observes Heremans. ‘Some are truly addicted to social media. They lose touch with the physical world and become especially susceptible to fake news and conspiracy thinking. Online bullying is obviously an issue as well. This has a major impact on the well-being of teenagers.’
First, the teacher staff held a pedagogical study day on this topic. ‘We attended lectures by experts and held a brainstorming session.’ This resulted in a plan for the coming academic year. ‘We would like to make our school a smartphone-free environment, thereby allowing for more physical interaction’, notes Heremans. ‘In addition, we are committed to safe interaction with the digital world. We will work with students concerning such aspects as privacy, resilience, boundary-setting and respect. This fits within a variety of subjects (e.g. computing and citizenship). To keep things concrete, we would like to present students with case studies and give them hands-on assignments. What if we have them look up what can be found about them online? That could really be a wake-up call!’
Finally, in the spring, students will elaborate art projects relating to this topic. Heremans sees this as a non-threatening form of self-expression. ‘Every year, the results are lovely. Students make videos, drawings, songs and much more. This provides us with insight into their inner world, and it sparks conversations.’
According to Heremans, schools should adopt a proactive, sustainable approach to online dangers. ‘For this reason, we don’t simply organise a training day. We devote effort to this throughout the year.’
A reactive approach is obviously used in response to urgent situations involving bullying. ‘We then hold a discussion with the students concerned and their parents. In extreme cases, sanctions (e.g. suspension) are necessary, but our main goal is always to bring our young people to an empathetic understanding. They need to be not only critical, but also compassionate in life. In the case of bullying (and cyberbullying), empathy is extremely important. You have to put yourself in someone else’s place and engage in an open conversation.’
Many teenagers lose touch with the physical world and become especially susceptible to fake news and conspiracy thinking. Online bullying is obviously an issue as well. This has a major impact on the well-being of teenagers.
‘Seek help in time’
We conclude with the story of a UAntwerp student: Nina*. A quarrel with her fellow student Myriam* escalated into a true situation of cyberbullying. Nina recounts how she experienced this bullying and the kind of assistance the university offered.
An escalating conflict
‘Myriam and I were in the same field of study’, notes Nina. ‘We were also friends; at least until we had a quarrel during a group assignment. Our friendship was over, and Myriam started hanging out with other students.’ It did not stop there. ‘I noticed that people were staring at me on campus. When I entered the auditorium, all heads turned and people pointed at me. This is how I found out that, in a WhatsApp group conversation with her new friends, Myriam had shared a lot of personal and sensitive information about me: my address, painful details about the break-up with my ex...’ The situation was weighing increasingly heavily on Nina, so much so that she no longer wanted to attend lectures.
One day, something in her snapped. ‘When I heard that Myriam had been talking about me to another fellow student, it was the last straw. I sent her a very angry message and called her sick.’ Not much later, Nina was invited for an interview with the student mediator, at Myriam’s request.
Assistance from the student mediator
‘I went there with an anxious heart’, recalls Nina. ‘We each told our side of the story. At first Myriam denied everything, but she eventually confessed and apologised.’ How was the matter settled? ‘We were given two options. We could either leave it at that, or we could sign a contract in which Myriam had to promise not to bother me again. I preferred the first option — I just wanted to close that chapter.’
Ask for help in time. The university is there for you. Together, you can reach a solution much faster.
Since then, the bullying has stopped. ‘We turned over a new leaf, but we won’t ever be friends again.’ The whole incident has also left a mark on Nina. ‘I’m now much more careful and formal in my interactions with fellow students, so that I’ll never be involved in something like that again.’
In hindsight, she thinks she would have approached it differently. ‘I did not go to the student psychologist or mediator myself, because I was not really aware of their services. I also didn’t want to let things escalate. As a result, it dragged on for months.’ Nina’s advice to students in a similar situation: ‘Ask for help in time. The university is there for you. Together, you can reach a solution much faster.’
* ‘Nina’ and ‘Myriam’ are pseudonyms.