Wed | Jul 28, 2021

Rashaun Stewart | Cyberbullying: The silent epidemic

Published:Sunday | May 16, 2021 | 12:05 AM

Technology is exponentially pushing the bounds of possibility and changing the face of human interaction. Smartphones and social media have experienced explosive increases in popularity in the last decade. With the rise in use of these platforms, the silent epidemic of cyberbullying has flourished.

Cyberbullying is the use of electronic communication to harm, intimidate, or coerce a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature. It can occur through SMS, text, and apps, or online in social media, forums, or gaming where people can view, participate, or share content. Cyberbullying is characterised by several features that distinguish it from traditional bullying.

Unlike traditional bullying that is perpetrated in schools, wherein it is typically visible and avoidable, cyberbullying often occurs anonymously. Victims are therefore likely to be stressed as they wonder who the bully is. Moreover, cyberbullying, by virtue of the electronic means through which it occurs, can occur at all hours of the day since victims are easily accessible through electronic means.

The scope of cyberbullying is exacerbated by the punitive fears on the part of victims. Reporting of cyberbullying tends to be low because of fear of retribution from bullies and fear of the removal of phone or Internet privileges, since parents/guardians tend to believe that the removal of access to technology is the best way to resolve the issue.

Disinhibition is the final parameter that characterises cyberbullying. Cyberbullies are emboldened by the anonymity that the Internet provides, since they can behave in ways that they may not do face-to-face. This can result in increasingly disturbing, threatening or intimidating activities as the bullying unfolds.

MOST VULNERABLE

Children and adolescents are particularly vulnerable to cyberbullying victimisation due to their ubiquitous usage of smartphones and participation in social media. The increased potential for large audiences and anonymous attacks, coupled with the permanence of posts and reduced adult supervision, render cyberbullying a significant threat to the mental health of children and adolescents. However, at least prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, cyberbullying had a much lower prevalence than, and created very few additional victims beyond, traditional forms of bullying.

The COVID-19 pandemic has deleteriously impacted several sectors. In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact heavily on the world’s children, including their education, health, and social life. Bullying, which harms each of these domains of childhood development, may have substantially increased during the ongoing pandemic, compounding further the disproportionate impact on children and young people.

Within the Jamaican context, there exists a paucity of substantive research done on cyberbullying. There is also a limited recognition of the negative implications of cyberbullying, which worsens the scope of the issue. Research was conducted in 2018 using U-Report, a free social-messaging tool conceptualised by the United Nations Children’s Fund. The research surveyed 592 youth between ages 13 and 29, with 39 per cent reporting that they had experienced cyberbullying. There is no research to assess the impact of the pandemic on cyberbullying in Jamaica, but it is likely that the numbers have increased.

To combat the scope of cyberbullying, there are several strategies that can be employed. These strategies must be evidence-based and account for the social contexts in which they are employed.

RAISE AWARENESS

The first step entails raising awareness of issues and concepts related to cyberbullying through mass media campaigns and sessions such as workshops and seminars. This will encourage reporting and reduce incidents.

DEVELOP INSTITUTIONAL CAPACITY

The second step entails developing the institutional capacity of entities charged with protecting and developing children and youth as it relates to responsiveness and developing strategic anti-bullying actions. This step would inculcate the Child Protection and Family Services Agency the Office of the Children’s Advocate and other governmental agencies tasked with youth protection and empowerment.

Within the context of schools, this would entail focusing on students and the social environment. Assessment of cyberbullying at schools and garnering staff and parent support would follow. The establishment of a group to coordinate the schools’ cyberbullying-prevention activities would be the next logical step.

After this, staff would require training in cyberbullying prevention. At a policy level, school rules relating to cyberbullying would need to be established and enforced. A continuation of these efforts over time would see dramatic improvements in the scope of the issue.

ESTABLISH GOVERNANCE STRUCTURES

The third step entails reformation of the existing governance structures. Having appropriate structures to recognise issues of bullying and addressing it appropriately at a national level is pivotal. This includes developing a national anti-bullying policy via the appropriate framework, that is, via the Cyber Crimes Act of 2015.

Rashaun Stewart is a second-year MBBS student at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Send feedback to rashaun.d.a.stewart@gmail.com.