From bullying to cyberbullying: how it changed with technology and how to counter it
Adolescence is a particular time in life, and it is not always easy. For many years now, the public gaze has been observing the dynamics of bullying and the impact of this phenomenon on their formative years. But how is technology changing social relations between teenagers? How have the new means of communication made certain forms of peer pressure, harassment, or threatening behavior even more insidious and dangerous? The rules that outline the roles and responsibilities when it comes to cyberbullying are just a few years old, but many projects have already been created to combat this phenomenon.
What is bullying and cyberbullying? The definitions
According to law n.17 from March 29, 2017, “cyberbullying is understood as any form of pressure, aggression, harassment, threat, insult, denigration, defamation, identity theft (or alteration or unlawful acquisition), manipulation, unlawful treatment of personal data to the detriment of a minor, perpetrated via electronic means, in addition to the spreading of online content regarding one or more family members of a minor, with the intentional and predominant aim of isolating a minor or group of minors by implementing serious abuse, a hurtful attack, or by making them objects of ridicule.”
The website of the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research refers to the two phenomena with the following definition: “Cyberbullying is the online manifestation of a wider phenomenon better known as bullying. The latter is characterized by violent and intimidatory actions carried out by a bully, or a group of bullies, against a victim. These actions include verbal harassment, physical aggression, or abuse, and they generally occur in a school environment. Today, technology enables bullies to infiltrate the homes of their victims and to materialize at any moment of their victims’ lives to persecute them with messages, images, or offensive videos sent via smartphone or posted on websites. Bullying thus becomes cyberbullying.”
Cyberbullying can manifest itself in different ways: from sending violent and vulgar online messages intended to provoke and humiliate the victim, to spreading personal and sensitive data, to changing someone’s online identity. It can even include cyberstalking, online disparagement and harassment, or take the form of cyberbashing (when instances of group violence or bullying are filmed and published on the Internet).
The difference between bullying and cyberbullying
The difference between bullying and cyberbullying does not depend solely on the use of technological means. While bullying refers to events that are repeated over time, the pervasiveness and speed with which content is spread online means that cyberbullying can be also characterized by a single episode that is rapidly amplified. While a conventional bully could be encountered at school, in a neighborhood, or at a sports field, their victims could find safety once they left that particular environment. A cyberbully, however, can torment his or her victim 24 hours a day. Moreover, the suffering experienced by the victims of cyberbullying is not visible to those who inflict it, who can enjoy a further detachment by using an online profile, which is often fake. This distance, both physical and empathic, means that anyone can turn into a cyberbully, even a victim of cyberbullying.
Who is the bully, who is the victim
Bullying can target various people in different ways: people can be picked on for their appearance, their school performance, or the way they talk or dress. The ones who are perceived as different are often picked on. Or it can be those who aren’t as strong, or who are less likely to be helped by others, maybe because they find it harder to make friends.
One mechanism highlighted in the relevant literature is cognitive restructuring, also called moral disengagement: the individual justifies their behavior to themselves by deactivating part or all of their moral control, thereby blocking out feelings of guilt, shame, or low self-worth. This can happen even more easily when an individual finds themself in front of a screen, as the lack of a physical presence makes it even more challenging to feel empathy for others.
The same mechanism comes into play for those who take part in acts of bullying or just stand by and watch it happen. That is why it is important to educate and boost awareness, responsibility, and a moral commitment to counter this disengagement. The “silent” group, in fact, can provide support to the bully and even become complicit with the bully without being aware that they are doing so. In the case of cyberbullying, just a simple “like,” a comment, a share, can make any participant co-responsible by also increasing the scope of the action. Furthermore, staying silent but knowing what is happening also carries a responsibility because breaking that silence could put an end to an instance of cyberbullying.
How to tackle cyberbullying
Following the advice of Italy’s Telefono Azzurro child helpline, if you see an episode of cyberbullying, or if someone confides in you, you must never trivialize it. What can often seem like a simple joke will remain online forever and will leave a trace long into the future. It is important to support people who are experiencing this situation, asking them how they are, helping them understand that they should not feel at fault, or feel shame or guilt for what happened.
It is better if those who are targeted avoid responding, commenting, or reacting on the same level. It is advisable, however, to save every trace of the bullying, which will become evidence if the situation is reported to the authorities. At that point, it is possible to block hostile profiles. If the victim is older than 14 (if younger, the intervention of a parent or guardian is necessary), the manager of the website or social network can be requested to conceal, remove, and/or block content that was spread online regarding a particular person. If the data manager fails to do so within 24 hours, there is a standard form to complete and send to the Authority for the Protection of Personal Data.
As far as the bullies are concerned, it is important to try to work on their emotional response, listening to them, understanding why they are bullying, and then acting in a firm but indirect manner in such a way as to protect the victim. Tough interventions that are direct and explicit risk aggravating the situation further for those who end up suffering even worse abuse in the absence of an adult.
How to prevent cyberbullying
The best cure for cyberbullying is prevention, aimed at avoiding the harm that these behaviors can inflict on potential victims. It is important to encourage dialogue, both at home and in schools, letting young people know that they can simply ask for help and advice. If they fear negative repercussions and punishments, it is unlikely they will open up when they are experiencing difficulties.
It is important that they learn to understand others’ points of view, to empathize and respect ideas that differ from their own, and also learn not to express themselves in an aggressive way. Identifying too closely with what they share on the Internet, however, can make them be hurt more easily by those who might attack them: it is better to ensure that what they experience online does not replace “real life.”
It is necessary to educate and reinforce awareness, responsibility, and respect in order to prevent violence and the silence of omertà, transmitting the message that cyberbullies are powerless without the fear or collusion of those around them. In terms of their privacy, young people and children shouldn’t post data or information that is too personal. Even more caution is necessary when it comes to loading photos and videos of themselves: this material could later be used to offend, bully, blackmail, or be shared to discredit that person. Unfortunately, there is no shortage of cases in the news. It is fundamental to ensure that the privacy settings are correct and age-appropriate.