MySociaLife

Cyberbullying

Expert on SA’s Anti-Bullying Week: “Why are South Africans cyberbullying?”

South Africa has a problem that is getting harder to fix

“How would you know if your child was being cyberbullied?” That is the chilling question that we posed during this week’s Anti-Bullying Week in South Africa. Originated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, this year’s theme is ‘One Kind Word.’

“The reality is that a surprising number of teens, and even pre-teens, won’t share that with you, as much as 40% have admitted they don’t want to open up, because they are worried parents may get angry, or be disappointed, or cause them embarrassment. Yet, students share this with us in schools and feedback in our online safety program. So we need to deeply rethink our approach.” 

Many adults hear the term ‘bullying’ or ‘cyberbullying’ and can easily assume this is the behaviour of immature school cliques. Still, in reality, bullying is driven by power dynamics, fear, insecurity, anxiety or personal exposure to aggressive and dominant behaviour that results in harassment and the invisible erosion of self-esteem. The impact causes the victim harm and can also extend into repeated behaviours by the perpetrator later in life, directed towards a colleague, employee, spouse, or partner.

Several studies in recent years have shown South Africa has rated in the top five in the world for cyberbullying – identified as when a child causes physical or emotional harm. Online, the behaviour is peaking at the age of 13, 14 and 15 years of age. Our one-hour lesson specifically covers all forms of online abuse, such as catfishing, outing, flaming, trolling, shaming, exclusion, image-based violence, and that’s just a few of them. We dig into the topic of empathy and show the consequences which can go as far as some students committing suicide. Cyberbullying is an invisible tormentor. It hides behind screens, evading parents and teachers. Even friends can miss the signs. Low self-esteem can make kids assume they deserve to be bullied or inhibit their ability to recognise it. Tweens and teens fear retaliation and worry that speaking up will only make things worse.

The challenge is not just technological but environmental. We want to blame devices for cyberbullying, but it’s more of a tool for bullying and not a reason for it. We have to understand the anxiety and anger that sits within our society, which has been aggravated by socio-economic challenges, the isolation during the pandemic and a surge of online users that have yet to be equipped by educators. That’s why bullying in South Africa is a crisis and not just a problem. Due to the leadership vacuum in this country, financial pressure in homes, and disconnected life skills and digital education, kids are acting out online in the same way they used to act out physically. South Africa is one of the more prominent cyberbullying nations in some studies. Education departments need to realise the powerful influence of social media and games and use them intelligently, re-directing the use of devices and platforms towards positive outcomes instead of negative ones. It is possible, but we are way behind right now. There’s a generational and technological divide.

According to Legalwise, South Africa’s CyberCrimes Act “criminalises a wide variety of cybercrimes. However, examples of crimes specifically associated with cyberbullying include electronic messages or social media posts towards a person that incite or threaten that person with violence or damage to their property; and the disclosure of intimate images of an identifiable person without their consent or link an identifiable person to such an image in the description of a data message. Intimate images refer to nude images, images of a person’s private parts (even if that person is wearing clothes), or edited images where a person is identifiable. With regards to children, these cybercrimes will also form part of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008, which regulates how children will be dealt with when they are accused of committing crimes and what consequences they will face. Imprisonment may be imposed for children between the ages of 10 and 18, but only as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.”

Our best shot lies in education. Suppose we can assume that robust values-driven leadership may not change any time soon. In that case, we only have the opportunity to show the youth the benefits of digital citizenship, empathy, communication in conflict, how to manage cyberbullying, and how to self-regulate. These skills are something every child can call on when an adult may not know what’s happening. It’s their armour. There has to be an incentive for them. Every small positive decision – every kind word – can lead to a better path in life, but someone needs to light the way. Ironically, teaching them through social media and popular culture and showing them their choices and the consequences really do work. They can relate to it. Our program has proven to have a real impact on students in acting as that beacon that shows them the fork in the road to make better choices.

Too close to home?

Homeschooling became a hot topic in 2020. Some who would have formally never imagined it as an option now see its merits, simply due to the reality of being forced into it by COVID-19. The question frequently asked is, what are the pro and cons? And sadly that’s an incredibly difficult thing to answer.

As Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, the 8-module Online Safety and Digital Life Orientation Program adopted by schools in South Africa explains, “The feedback from students who now find themselves being homeschooled is very mixed. One size does not fit all when it comes to kids and the households in which they live. There are different levels of attention that learners can access, different technologies, and different parents supporting them. Is homeschooling being driven by a parent (or homeschool teacher), or is it blended with online learning? In some cases, it could be largely online. There are myriad permutations here. Of the 4000 students, we teach – and we teach them 8 times in a year – the feedback is very diverse. Some are feeling anxious, while others are relishing this new approach to their education.”
 

The pros of homeschooling speak for themselves: Less time in traffic, you can customize your child’s learning tools, you can protect your child more from issues like racism or bullying, and you can accommodate special needs or learning requirements.

By contrast, according to neuroscientists and cognitive therapist, Dr. David Rosenstein that advises MySociaLife on the direction and tools used in the 8-lesson program, “There is a difference between peer group interaction and adult interaction – right now children don’t have children to play with and learning through play is huge. Also, peer interactions improve learning through peer modeling – for example, “hey if my friend can count to 100, then I can too…so I’ll learn to do that”. In addition, peer interactions are incredibly important learning that happens in that type of context and responds differently to adults than they do to peers. You relate to someone of your developmental age differently.”

Parents also have their own stresses and strains, and can potentially let their own fatigue or perspectives get in the way. “While homeschooling may suit some children in Lockdown, there have been many parents that have felt the pressure of juggling these complex tasks while trying to work, or manage other siblings,” explains McCoubrey.

He adds, “We have a lot of parents asking us for our parent presentation on how to manage their child’s increased life online. Homeschooling is powerful if you have time and energy, and can provide adequate support, blended with a dose of self-awareness and objectivity. We, at MySociaLife, know first-hand how it requires immense energy to hold the space, support teens and pre-teens, keep their motivation, stimulate them with tools that help them engage, and remember the information. In our Program, we use video, animations, discussions with others, workshops, gamification, and quizzes. Life online (social media or e-learning requires a map. Up until now, it’s not been attended to, which is why our program has been in such demand in schools. We don’t just teach students, we teach parents and teachers too. There are several groups here that want to do this better.”

Anti-Bullying Week – South Africa ranks high in global survey on cyberbullying

South Africa showed the highest prevalence of cyberbullying in a recent report by Ipsos Global, based on research in 28 countries. The report showed that more than 80% of South Africans said they were aware of cyberbullying and almost three-quarters of South Africans believe that the anti-bullying measures that are in place are insufficient. A Vodafone survey from 2018 ranked South Africa fourth for teen cyberbullying out of 13 countries, and Dean McCoubrey, founder of MySociaLife, a South African in-school Digital Life Skills Program teaching digital life skills program for schools, says that it’s likely even more prevalent, based on student feedback.

Cyberbullying is real, it’s here, and it’s harming South African children and teenagers daily, with its effects often being mistaken for ‘kids just being kids’ by parents who are yet to understand how rife and damaging cyberbullying can be. Anti-Bullying Week 2019, from 11-15 November, is a good time for schools to pay attention to the extent of cyberbullying, and for parents to get a handle on what they can do to avoid and deal with it.

“The challenge with cyberbullying is that parents can’t permanently monitor their child’s devices,” explains McCoubrey, whose programme teaches thousands of students, parents, teachers and psychologists to help children feel safer and behave smarter online.

“Parents and teachers need specifics – not just the broad term of ‘cyberbullying’ – as this is a broad and elusive form of ‘warfare’ on these devices – and parents will definitely find it difficult to track or understand what’s actually going on.

He shares the five faces of cyberbullying:

  1. Children can use negative, harmful, false images or text, chat, apps or social media posts to embarrass or threaten someone.
  2. The sharing of personal or private information that may cause the victim to feel embarrassed or humiliated. This can surprisingly hail from a friend (a practical joke) or a former friend, turned enemy. In that event, the controlling of a person’s account, posting photographs, starting rumours, or changing profile photos can also occur.
  3. Faking profiles, known as ‘catfishing’, when bullies create new accounts and borrow profile photos and names and pretend to be a person to create a false relationship – sometimes sharing the personal and confidential declarations made in confidence.
  4. Sexting or sextortion is the sharing of nude photographs either within group chats, or on social media sites, or websites (although less likely due to the possibility of tracking the source of the publisher). Sextortion is focused more on the threat and bribery associated with publishing photographs, rather than the act itself.
  5. Video shaming is the sharing of videos of someone being embarrassed, threatened or hurt, and then publishing these to allow the content to go wider, or even viral, compounding the psychological harm.

Students and parents have a few options:

  1. Record: Most importantly, kids need to be reminded to record the cyberbullying event by using the device to take a screenshot and even send the screenshot to a safe place (email, storage) so you can take it off your device. This can be used to prove the problem exists as bullies are cunning and cover their tracks.
  2. Don’t take the bait: As difficult as it may seem, reacting is what the bully wants, and kids need to avoid the situation and remove themselves from groups or feeds which aren’t supporting their mental health. It may be hard but it’s necessary.
  3. Seek support: Parents and schools need to create safe spaces to discuss the issues and not ‘freak out’ – students often say that reactive parents and teachers who tackle the issue too abruptly can snowball or magnify the problem. Adults need to handle situations calmly with patience and maturity.
  4. Engage: From a mental health perspective, students need support, but it’s essential to select a trusted expert. This may be a counsellor or senior figure in the school to assist with the situation. Alternatively, you can seek out a social media lawyer or the police, dependent on the extent of the harm. Suggestions include SafetyNet for bullying, or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group for mental health concerns.

In conducting MySociaLife’s interactive social media and safety program, which includes a module about cyberbullying, McCoubrey has been surprised by students coming forward and admitting they had no idea of the extent of cyberbullying, the different sensitivities of human beings, and how different images, social media posts, chat forums and messages can hurt people, and impact them long-term. McCoubrey explained that of the ten modules they teach; cyberbullying is the #1 problem followed by mental health and self-esteem, then privacy and security and sexuality online.

But cyberbullying is an issue which starts early and continues throughout. It’s the nature of social media – we feel we have a voice to say good and bad things! “These are kids, and because they look savvy online, it doesn’t mean they have the maturity to handle the device.

“Four out of 10 kids don’t want to share their concerns. We need to find a way to engage, a safe platform to discuss these concerns, without withdrawing them from their community, unless of course, that’s a necessity to keep them safe.

According to Commonsense Media, there are four parties involved in a cyberbullying situation: the cyberbully that’s using digital tools to deliberately upset or harass their target – the victim of cyberbullying. The bystanders are aware that something cruel is happening, but who stay on the side-lines out of indifference or fear of becoming targets themselves. The upstanders are the kids who actively try to stop the cyberbullying cycle, whether it’s by sticking up for the victim, standing up to the bully, or notifying the appropriate authorities about what’s happening.

Cyberbullying is real and the impact it has on teens and tweens can be hugely damaging if not handled correctly.

“Parents and teachers can use Anti-Bullying Week to make children aware that it’s everyone’s responsibility to make the online and real-life worlds a safe place,” says McCoubrey. “Anyone can be an upstander by reporting a bully, flagging a cruel comment, or even just choosing not to forward or share cyberbullying content. Doing so will stop a cyberbullying episode from escalating, and will reduce or even remove the bully’s power.

“It’s also important to have open paths of communication with everyone and to continue talking about how to prevent cyberbullying from happening. That is why every school should have a digital life skills program in place,” he says.