In about one month the new school year launches. Whether your student attends in person or remotely, there are commonalities. They’ll love and hate being in class. They’ll be part of future history lessons about the novel coronavirus pandemic. If they’re athletes, their sporting careers are being impacted. And, technology is baked into the equation no less so than textbooks and teachers themselves. The children’s experiences as affected by their technologies is my aim today. More precisely, one risk that comes with the tech is my subject.

The risk, all too common, downloads itself into their youthful experience as cyberbullying. Yes, we again patched onto the front of a word the prefix, “cyber,” which is just the shortcut to describing something—bullying, or stalking, or warfare, or security—as a computerized version of its more traditional meaning. You may read it as “online bullying” as well. You, or the next reader, experienced bullying or so my unscientific and too quick non-research surmised. Okay, maybe not half of school aged kids get bullied, so it may take a few readers before we ID one who was; fewer still would be comfortable admitting it. No matter the ridiculousness of my surmise, let’s agree that bullying in the schoolyard, or wherever, is part of students’ experiences.

Bullying in any environment includes the same basic ingredients. The bully levies intentional, repeated, and aggressive behavior against the victim whose negative emotional response results. In real life, bullying could evolve into violent acts. But the violent results aren’t limited to the physical world, as you’ll see. That’s an important, common end to either traditional bullying or cyberbullying. It’s a reality to grasp if you want to really understand the problem.

There are some distinctions about cyberbullying that make it a subset worth exploring, and researchers and scientists do just that. One study from 2007, which was about the dawning era of cyberbullying, though not its actual starting point, separated cyberbullies’ activities into eight categories:

Denigration – The victim’s reputation is recreated into one that harms their relationships.

Exclusion – The bully prohibits the victim from joining a group online, such as in social media.

Flaming – The bully directly attacks the victim online with angry, vulgar statements.

Harassment – This is the repeated publishing and sharing of cruel, mean statements about the victim.

Impersonation –The bully impersonates the victim and attributes fake communications, opinions, or likes and dislikes to sully their reputation.

Outing –This activity involves the bully posting real and personal information about the victim online: who their crush is; questionably legal photos; or sexual preference.

Stalking – Stalking online is intended to elicit fear of the victim’s personal safety.

Trickery –The bully tricks the victim into ponying up personal, often embarrassing information, and then goes into Outing mode.

There are many other ways to describe cyberbullying, and these eight activities make for a healthy, structured beginning. But, why do we need to understand cyberbullying and why do the kids need to recognize it (and, ideally, report it)? It’s due to its prevalence. More cogent studies than mine above have shown that traditional bullying is in fact more commonplace than the online counterpart. Yet, for example in a 2016 study, American students ages 12 to 17 were experiencing some form of cyberbullying at a rate of one-out-of-three respondents. Keep in mind that honest answers are required for honest data, and not all victims are willing to admit their pains. Similar reports resulted in numbers ranging from 7% having experienced cyberbullying up to 40% in other Western nations.

If you put on a movie that includes a theme or a scene about bullying, online or on a playground, you may be able to predict who the bully and victim are. Biff Tannen, from Back to the Future, was almost immediately identifiable as Marty’s nemesis. The theme to Peter and the Wolf accompanied the ornery Scott “Scut” Farkus whenever he popped up to attack Ralphie in A Christmas Story. Actually, though, it’s never easy to predict bullying behavior, and online that bar is higher. We can read the data and find some trends to help. Females tend to be the more ready victims, and older kids are more likely so than younger children. Kids with a personal connection to technology, and who spend more time with it, suffer more. The more your kids share about themselves online, the more open they are. Sadly, the last predictor is that the victim in real life will likely be victimized online.

In 2006 Megan Meier made an online connection with “Josh Evans.” They became friends, virtually, on a social media platform just like your kids do all the time; maybe you, too. Megan was a child, though, and not sophisticated as an adult would be to notice that her new friend was a phony. Their online exchanges grew into a more emotional relationship, which is natural for a 14-year-old. Her newfound friend then turned. Megan’s pleasantries that were morphing into puppy love suddenly were met with mean and hurtful replies from “Josh,” whom as we now know was one Lori Drew, mother to one of Megan’s recently estranged friends. The mom, apparently, converted what should have been mere care for, and love of, her daughter into bullying against Megan. Megan’s deeply personal, sometimes embarrassing messages to her bully were all exposed online. It was unbearable to the child, who took her pain to the limit by committing suicide. It may start with ones and zeroes in the digital world, but reality can easily sneak in.

We need a lot more information to really understand cyberbullying and its effects. The best you can do is to have frequent, serious talks with your kids and grandchildren. If you teach, it’s even more important to have some meaningful dialogue.

To learn more, visit the Cyberbullying Research Center at www.cyberbullying.us.

Ed is a professor of cybersecurity, an attorney, and a trained ethicist. Reach him at edzugeresq@gmail.com.

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