Children and adults worldwide are facing a threat far more serious than bullying on the playground – cyber-bullying. It's faceless, immediate and dangerous, and growing on a daily basis.
Cyber-bullying has a number of aspects and targets. Children and teenagers are particularly vulnerable, although teachers are also common targets.
Dingani Ngobeni, from the Department of Education (DoE) said that while the department did not deal directly with bullying incidents, it was aware cyber-bullying was a growing problem. He said schools themselves, and parents, had an obligation to the children to help combat it.
"Bullying in general does occur in schools and … has unfortunately existed since the dawn of peer interactions among young people. Schools have a responsibility to provide a safe and supportive environment for all members of the school community," he said.
He added that cyber-bullying would be very hard to track.
"When real world bullying occurs in a school environment (classroom), teachers are often able to intervene, but online bullying takes place off the radar screen of adults, making it difficult to detect in schools and impossible to monitor off school property."
How big is the problem?
According to studies published in a supplement to the Journal of Adolescent Health, aggression via electronic media, such as blogs, instant messaging, chat rooms, email, and text messaging, is affecting many children.
Although these studies relate primarily to the US experience, and South Africa is less technological, there have been enough reported incidences in South Africa to make it clear that the problem is endemic here too.
Among the studies' key findings:
- In 2000, six percent of internet users ages 10 to 17 said they'd been subjected to online harassment, compared to nine percent in 2005.
- Adolescents who were harassed online were more likely to get detention, be suspended, skip school, and to experience emotional distress.
- Those who received rude or nasty comments via text messaging were six times more likely than other students to report that they felt unsafe at school.
- Sixty-four percent of children harassed online were not harassed or bullied at school.
What's being done about it?
Ngobeni claimed that the Signposts for Safer Schools programme, developed in partnership with the Department of Safety and Security, serves as a guideline for teachers to address issues related to crime and violence, such as bullying at schools.
The programme provides general guidelines which could be followed in order to identify, prevent and intervene in cases where bullying does occur.
He added that another way of dealing with bullying at schools was highlighted in the Codes of Conduct for Learners, which involves learners, parents and community members and is mandatory for all schools.
"Bullying in whatever form, which is problematic for the school, should be addressed within the code," he said. The contents of that code should be well communicated, he added, "and include issues related to Internet use, cell phone use, bullying and suicide prevention."
Should children be denied internet access to protect them?
These days, most children have access to at least a computer or a cell phone. Would denying access to such technologies help prevent your child becoming a victim of cyber bullying?
Ngobeni doesn't think so, and actually stated that the DoE believes the use of technology is a positive thing for learners.
"Technology has become an integral part of the everyday experience of young people and the challenge for the education system is to fully exploit the practical advantages of technology for people of all ages by supporting new ways of learning and helping learners and teachers to interact with each other more effectively," he said.
"To young people, this is an obvious and natural way to learn."
What parents can do
Ngobeni offered the following tips for parents to take under advisement:
- Learn as much as possible about the bullying your child is suffering before irrevocable damage is done. Parents have a key role in supporting the school by helping their children understand the issues surrounding use of the internet.
- Be aware of the sanctions a school will apply should a learner contravene the acceptable use policy, and the effects this may have on the child's education.
- Encourage children to develop their own moral code so they will choose to behave ethically both online and on the playground. Let them know what behaviour you find unacceptable and ask how they would feel if someone called them obese, stupid, or a loser.
- Talk to your child about responsible internet use and teach them never to post or say anything on the internet or cell phone they wouldn’t want the whole world - including you - to read.
- Create an online agreement or contract for computer use with your child’s input and take action when and if your child is being bullied online.
- Watch out for signs that your child is being bullied. Reluctance to use the computer, or cell phone or go to school may be an indication.
- If the bully is a learner at your child’s school, meet with school officials and ask for help in resolving the situation.
- Report any incident of online harassment and physical threat to your local police station and your Internet Service Provider.
Andre Snyman of eBlockwatch, an online community project which uses its network of members to assist police in fighting crime, said that although electronic technology could be abused by some, the same technology could also be used to track and stop them too.
"It's important to remember that every time you send an e-mail, or an SMS, or make a phone call – you leave a digital footprint. Through this we can track the culprits," he said.
"Digital footprints don't disappear. The problem the police are facing with being able to do this, is a lack of manpower. But it can be done."
Snyman said he had received a few reports of different forms of cyberbullying. In most instances, the eBlockwatch team was able to track the culprit and put a stop to it.
"People must not think that they won't be caught. We have a whole network of people who are online all over the country all day, every day, and we like catching trouble makers," he warned.
Real life stories
The dangers of online harassment were highlighted recently after a teenage girl in America committed suicide after cyber-bullying by what turned out to be the mother of one of her friends, masquerading as a teenage boy who was interested in her.
According to news reports, the girl, Megan Meier, became depressed and committed suicide after a "boy" she had been flirting with online abruptly ended their "relationship". It was later discovered that the boy never existed.
Department of Education
(Picture: cyber bullying from Shutterstock)