Cyberbullying – what is it and what can you do for your family

Forget playground taunts: today our children are dealing with a new form of 21st-century bullying that assaults them day or night via the internet and their mobile phone. The phenomena of cyberbullying can create bruises that are psychological, not physical.

It’s something no parent wants to see etched on their child’s face: a look of sheer terror and utter panic. Katherine witnessed it late one night when, passing her 14-year-old son’s bedroom, she noticed a glow emanating from his laptop.

“John knows he’s not allowed to have his computer in his bedroom – but then I saw his face was as white as a sheet,” she says. “I had to wrestle him to the ground to get the computer off him, but my sixth sense told me something was wrong.”

Jealous over John, who is in Year Eight, being selected for a cricket team of Year 11 and 12 boys, his so-called school mates had hacked into John’s Facebook profile and, posing as him, sent a series of lewd messages to girls he didn’t know. Even worse, they’d posted a photograph purporting to be of John’s penis.

Cyberbullying – a type of covert bullying employed primarily by young people to harm others using technology, including social networking sites such as Facebook, internet chat rooms, mobile phones, websites and web cameras – is alive and well in Australian schools today.

The Federal Government is, in deputy prime minister Julia Gillard’s words, “so concerned” that it is funding a $3-million pilot program to arrest the problem. As a level coordinator for Year Eight and Nine at a private girls’ school in Melbourne, Katherine is well versed on the topic of cyberbullying, but what she did next was an act of pure parental instinct.

“I stupidly shut down the whole page and helped him reset his password,” she says. “What I should have done is print the  page as proof. But it was a lioness instinct, to protect my child at all costs. We notified John’s school but they did nothing because there was no evidence. The bullying continued for a while but things have settled down now, mostly by John showing he’s worthy of the spot in the team.”

According the latest (ACBPS), around one in six Australian students has been or is being bullied online or via mobile phone. Clinical psychologist Dr Simon Kinsella says cyberbullying differs from old-fashioned bullying in two significant ways: it can reach a huge audience very quickly, and, because it can be anonymous, it is more cowardly since the bully does not have to see the impact they are having on the victim, making it easier to be more brutal.

The need to educate parents on the issue “could not be more urgent”, says Dr Kinsella. “Children are killing themselves due to the pain inflicted by cyberbullying and many parents are unfamiliar with the technologies involved and the ways in which those technologies can be abused.”

Robyn Treyvaud, a former teacher who is now a director of , a consultancy business dealing with the issue, says young people might be technologically savvy but rarely have the tools to deal with the emotional side.

“Young people have laptops and mobile phones, and it’s like giving them a car without their P plates,” says Robyn. “We’ve handed them this really powerful technology but we haven’t developed or passed on to them that it’s about ethical and acceptable use.” As Robyn points out, we owe it to our kids to give them the tools to deal with what she describes as a “Lord Of The Flies-type situation”.

“Our kids are in a digital playground in which there are no rules, no accountability and no age verification,” she says. “It’s a lawless frontier and it’s very difficult for us to know what’s going on at all times.”

Still, Robyn says the best way for parents to know what’s happening in their child’s virtual world is to talk to them regularly and vigilantly observe their child’s behaviour. “If your child is depressed or withdrawn or refusing to go to school, you don’t just need to look at the whites of their eyes, you need to watch what’s going on around them also,” she says.

According to the ACPBS, children often hide cyberbullying from their parents and Robyn says this is because a parent’s typical knee-jerk response is to deny them access to the technology that’s the means by which the bullying occurs.

“We jump very quickly to protect young people by focusing on the technology rather than exploring the issues that have led to this – it’s often peer relationships and, unfortunately, because our response is so reactive, they’re not talking to us,” says Robyn. “And 64 per cent in the ACPBS study said if they were being bullied they’d turn to a friend rather than a parent.”

What’s tricky for parents, especially as kids get older, is knowing how to tread the fine line of being aware of their online activities and allowing them some degree of privacy. “If we acknowledge risk-taking is a natural, developmental stage, and if we’re monitoring and asking questions about where they are going and with whom in the real world, we need to be asking it about the online world as well.”

Robyn says parents also need to be aware of the phenomena of ‘sexting’, which is where girls are pressured to share an indecent, sexualised image of themselves via mobile phone. “They send it to their boyfriend and for bragging rights he forwards it to his mates and it spreads virally,” she says. “It becomes child pornography and before you know it, a boy has set up ‘Holly’s dating page’ on the internet and it says ‘click here to see her hot pics’. It’s deliberate, it’s gone viral, and it’s certainly intended to harm the girl and her reputation.”

Robyn says police have told her the incidence of ‘sexting’ is nearing an epidemic.

“It’s certainly under the radar of adults – it’s not seen by us and it’s not acknowledged by us until it hits a really significant point,” Robyn says. “So there are lots of kids who do this but aren’t all that sure about privacy, but it is
certainly a form of cyberbullying, bribery and blackmail.”

For Katherine, cyberbullying is such an important issue that she and her husband make it their business to set firm rules about, and stay aware of, their three children’s online activities.

“I don’t know whether you can protect a child from it happening, but you can certainly educate them,” she says. “It’s the same old bullying as ever, just in a different world. I just try to get across to them that cyberbullying is cowardly – and if they’re not prepared to say something to someone’s face then they certainly shouldn’t say it while hiding behind a computer screen.”

Tips for parents

Expert Robyn Treyvaud offers her tips on dealing with cyberbullying:

  1. Keep children’s computers in high-traffic areas of the house where people are moving around (this is especially important for younger children).
  2. Know the sorts of websites your kids are visiting – ask them to show you.
  3. Develop family agreements about which sites they can go to and how long they spend online.
  4. 4 No mobile phones in bedrooms after lights out.
  5. Encourage your children to treat internet passwords like toothbrushes – that is, don’t share them with anyone!
  6. Search their name in Google regularly to see what’s online about them.
  7. Continue to ask questions about your child’s online experiences but make it general, kicking off conversations with questions such as: ‘What are the cool sites that kids are hanging out in at the moment?’
  8. Keep in touch with your child’s school about its policies on cyberbullying.

Robyn suggests visiting this site with your kids: . “This film is being offered to schools by ACMA,” she says. “I have shown it to thousands of students and it is extremely effective in helping them appreciate the impact of cyberbullying.”

Illustration: Jackie Parsons