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From bullying to cyberbullying: how it changed with technology and how to counter it

From bullying to cyberbullying: how it changed with technology and how to counter it

New increasingly insidious threats and dangerous forms of bullying against teenagers arising from the Internet and smartphones


Adolescence is a sensitive and not always easy period of life. For many years, public attention has been focused on the dynamics of bullying in Italy and its impact during the growing years, especially since Generation Z has become hyper-technological and hyper-connected but very "dependent" on the internet and social media.

But how is technology changing social relationships among adolescents and how have new means of communication made certain forms of pressure, harassment, or extortion more insidious and dangerous? The law regulating roles and responsibilities regarding cyberbullying was enacted a few years ago, and there are many projects aimed at combating the phenomenon.

What are bullying and cyberbullying? The definitions

According to the law of May 29, 2017, no. 71, "cyberbullying means any form of pressure, aggression, harassment, blackmail, insult, denigration, defamation, identity theft, alteration, illicit acquisition, manipulation, illicit treatment of personal data to the detriment of minors, carried out via telematics, as well as the dissemination of online content aimed at one or more components of the minor's family whose intentional and predominant purpose is to isolate a minor or a group of minors by perpetrating serious abuse, harmful attacks, or ridicule."

The website of the Ministry of Education, Universities, and Research provides the definition of the two phenomena: "Cyberbullying is the manifestation on the Internet of a broader phenomenon better known as bullying. The latter is characterized by violent and intimidating actions carried out by a bully, or a group of bullies, against a victim. Actions may involve verbal harassment, physical assaults, persecutions, generally carried out in a school environment. Today, technology allows bullies to infiltrate victims' homes, materializing in every moment of their lives, harassing them with offensive messages, images, videos sent via smartphones or published on websites via the Internet. Bullying thus becomes cyberbullying."

Cyberbullying can manifest in various ways: from violent and vulgar online messages aimed at provoking and humiliating victims, to the dissemination of personal and sensitive data, to impersonation. It can escalate to cyberstalking, defamation, and online harassment, culminating in what is termed cyberbashing when group violence or maltreatment is recorded and then published on the Internet.


Difference between bullying and cyberbullying

The difference between bullying and cyberbullying is not only in the use of technological means: while bullying refers to events repeated over time, the pervasiveness and speed with which online material spreads mean that cyberbullying can also be characterized by a single episode that rapidly amplifies. If one could be sheltered from the bully encountered at school, in the oratory, or on the sports field once outside that environment, their cyber version can keep the victim under siege 24 hours a day. Moreover, in cyberbullying, the suffering experienced by victims is not visible to those causing it, who gain further distance by using an online, often virtual, profile. This physical and empathetic distance means that anyone can become a cyberbully, even those who are victims of bullying themselves.

What is Safer Internet Day?

The conscious use of the Internet is so important that there is a day dedicated to this theme: Safer Internet Day, the global day for online safety, established in 2004 to promote safer use of the web and new technologies, especially among children and young people. The day has become a reference event involving hundreds of countries. Its purpose is to create a moment of reflection on the active role of each individual in making the Internet a more positive and safe place, directly involving parents and guardians, teachers and educators, the political and business world.

Bullying and cyberbullying numbers in Italy

A 2022 study by Moige in collaboration with the Piepoli Institute found that more than half (54%) of minors in Italy have experienced bullying. 22% of minors spend over 5 hours a day connected, 63% connect to the internet without any supervision (in 2021 it was 59%). After a contraction during the pandemic period, episodes of bullying and cyberbullying have increased with 54% of minors being victims of bullying compared to 44% in 2020.

Acts of bullying suffered at school are more frequent among younger children (11-13 years old) and girls according to data from the Health Behaviour Surveillance in School-aged Children - HBSC Italy 2022, while the phenomenon of cyberbullying is growing among girls and boys aged 11 and 13. The two phenomena decrease with age, but the data continue to depict a context in which bullying and cyberbullying are still very widespread.


Who is the bully, who is the victim

Bullying can take various forms and involve different actors: physical appearance, academic performance, way of speaking or dressing, or any aspect perceived as different by an individual or group may be targeted. Or those who are weaker, or who are less likely to be helped by others, perhaps because they don't make friends very easily.

A mechanism highlighted in literature is cognitive restructuring, also called moral disengagement, through which the individual self-justifies, partially or completely deactivating moral control, thus shielding themselves from feelings of devaluation, guilt, and shame. This occurs even more easily when faced with a screen, which in the absence of physical presence makes it more challenging to empathize with others.

Even those who participate in or simply witness acts of bullying experience the same mechanism: that's why it becomes important to educate and reinforce awareness, assumption of responsibility, moral commitment against the disengagement that risks occurring. The "silent" group, in fact, can support the bully, even becoming complicit - perhaps without realizing it - in cyberbullying. In the case of cyberbullying, in fact, even a simple like, comment, or share makes anyone participating complicit, effectively increasing the impact of the action. Even remaining silent while knowing what is happening attributes a responsibility: because stopping being silent is something that can halt a situation of cyberbullying.

How to deal with cyberbullying

But how to defend oneself from cyberbullying? Following the advice of Telefono Azzurro, if one witnesses an episode of cyberbullying, or if someone confides in us, it should never be minimized: the consequences of cyberbullying can be very serious, and often what may seem like a simple joke will always remain online and leave a trace even over time. It is important to make those experiencing this situation feel supported, ask how they are, help them understand that they should not feel wrong, ashamed, or blame themselves for what happened.

It is better for those targeted to avoid responding, commenting, reacting at the same level: it is advisable instead to keep all evidence, which will constitute proof in case of a report. At that point, hostile profiles can be blocked, and if the victim is over 14 years old (otherwise parental or guardian intervention is necessary), they can ask the website or social network manager to obscure, remove, and/or block content concerning them spread on the internet. If the manager does not act within 24 hours, there is a form to fill out to report it to the Data Protection Authority.

Regarding the bully, it is important to try to work on their emotions, listen to them, understand why they do it, and act firmly but indirectly, in order to protect the victim. Harsh, direct, and explicit interventions risk only worsening the situation for those who, in the absence of an adult, will then have to endure even worse harassment.

How to prevent cyberbullying

The best cure for cyberbullying is prevention, aimed at preventing possible victims from suffering the wounds that these behaviors can leave. It is important to encourage dialogue, both at home and at school, making it clear to young people that they can always ask for help or advice. If they fear negative consequences and punishment, they are unlikely to open up in case of difficulty.

It is important for them to learn to understand others' perspectives, to empathize and respect ideas different from their own, and not to express themselves aggressively. Identifying too much with what they share on the Internet, however, will make them more easily hurt by those who might attack them: it is better to ensure that what they experience online does not replace "real" life.

It is then necessary to educate and reinforce awareness, assumption of responsibility, respect, against violence and omertà, conveying the message that, without fear or collusion from those around, the cyberbully could not act. Attention to privacy: it is preferable that young people and adolescents never publish data or too much personal information. Even more caution about photos and videos of themselves: this is material that could be used to offend or blackmail, or shared to discredit. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of news stories in this regard. Depending on their age, make sure that privacy settings are correct.

Bullying and cyberbullying at school

Law 71 of 2017 and the related Guidelines for the prevention and contrast of cyberbullying indicate to the actors of the school system the roles, responsibilities, and useful actions to prevent and manage cases. The guidelines provide for the choice of a reference person, who must be trained, along with the promotion of an active role for students, who must also develop adequate digital skills. Particular emphasis is placed on the fact that the school must adopt preventive and educational actions, not just punitive ones (proportionate to the seriousness of the acts committed), as well as support and re-education measures for the minors involved.

The referent is responsible for coordinating initiatives to prevent and combat cyberbullying, with the collaboration of the Police Forces or associations present in the territory, also supporting the school principal in drafting internal regulations and procedures. The latter, in case of becoming aware of acts of cyberbullying, must inform the parents of the minors involved unless the actions taken do not constitute a crime. In the event of a suspected crime, reference can be made to the offices of the Police Forces to report and allow the competent authorities to investigate the situation from an investigative point of view. Those who commit acts of bullying and cyberbullying may also be responsible for criminal offenses and civil damages: responsibilities that, in the case of minors, may also fall on parents, teachers, and the school.



Services and projects for minors, parents, and teachers

There are numerous educational and training projects against bullying and cyberbullying, as well as services always available for young people or parents who want to seek help.

  1. "Young Ambassadors against cyberbullying" is the national campaign of MOIGE - Italian Parents' Movement onlus, promoted in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the State Police, ANCI - National Association of Italian Municipalities, the Embassy of the United States of America in Italy, and also with the support of Enel Cuore. The project aims to inform about the risks and opportunities of digital technology and to make young people more aware and responsible for the world of the web, involving parents and teachers who must have an active role in supervision and control. Moige provides a toll-free number 800.93.70.70, an SMS service dedicated to number 393.300.90.90, as well as mobile support and assistance centers against cyberbullying. The camper equipped with multifunctional spaces was purchased in 2018 thanks to a donation from Enel Cuore Onlus.
  2. "Connected Generations" is a project coordinated by the Ministry of Education, Universities, and Research, co-financed by the European Commission under the "Connecting Europe Facility" program, promoting strategies to make the Internet a safer place for younger users. Within it, there are training courses for teachers, parents, and students, informative material for young people, parents, and schools, videos and comic book characters to teach how to stay safe online and a platform dedicated to digital civic education.
  3.  Safer Internet Centre (SIC), included in the "Connected Generations" project and a member of a network promoted by the European Commission, which materializes in the online platform "Better Internet for Kids" managed by European Schoolnet, in collaboration with INSAFE (network that collects all European SICs) and Inhope (network that collects all European hotlines). The aim of SIC is to provide information and support to children and young people, as well as those involved in their digital education (and not only). The project also serves to facilitate the reporting of illegal material online to create a better environment on the Internet, safer, innovative, and of quality.
  4. Telefono Azzurro provides expert and prepared operators on these kinds of issues, available to listen and help young people at the number 19696, free and active 24 hours a day, every day, or via chat. It also provides a Helpline always available for those who may need a discussion and help to manage negative experiences and/or problems related to the use of new media in the most appropriate way.
  5. In 2020, the eighth edition of "A life on social media" was held, the itinerant educational campaign of the State Police and the Ministry of Education on the themes of social networks, bullying, and cyberbullying. Postal and communications police operators, during the previous editions, met over 2.5 million students, 220,000 parents, 125,000 teachers in 18,500 schools, reaching 350 cities.
  6. For the 2020-2021 school year, the Ministry of the Interior sponsored the project "Yellow Benches against bullying and cyberbullying" by Helpis Onlus, an organization that since 2005 aims to counter adolescent discomfort in all its forms and protect minors, through direct interventions in schools and training of teachers and parents. The benches are meant to keep attention high on the problem of bullying and to remember that risks can hide on the Internet, especially for the youngest.