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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 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.

The statistics about bullying and cyberbullying

In occasion of the Safer Internet Day 2021, the global day dedicated to a more responsible use of the Internet, the Italian Parents’ Movement (MOIGE) presented the results of a survey carried out in collaboration with the Piepoli Institute on a sample of 1,144 minors. 45% of respondents claimed to have suffered from bullying, of which 30% was verbal, 24% psychological, 4% physical, and 4% social. Three out of ten said they knew victims of cyberbullying, and 30% of those cases occurred periodically. The investigation also revealed that 48% considered their parents a reference point in case of bullying episodes, while just 14% would turn to teachers, and 24% to friends.

The latest data from ISTAT on bullying dates back to 2014, and yet it already captured a widespread phenomenon. Based on its survey (which focused on 11 to 17-year-olds), over half of them claimed they were subjected to at least one episode they considered offensive, disrespectful and/or violent during the previous 12 months; 19.8% claimed to have been the target of bullying at least once a month, and almost half of them (9.1%) stated that this occurred at least once a week. The percentage of children that claim to have been bullied decreased with age. It also increased the further north the respondents lived in Italy, and it seemed to be more widespread among girls.


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.

Bullying and cyberbullying at school

Law 71 of 2017 and the related guidelines for preventing and combating cyberbullying indicate the roles, responsibilities, and actions that actors in the school system can adopt to prevent and manage cases. The guidelines include appointing a fully trained reference figure, as well as promoting an active role for students, who must also develop adequate digital skills. A particular emphasis should be placed on the fact that the school must adopt preventive and educational measures, and not just punitive ones, that are proportionate to the seriousness of the acts committed, as well as provide support and reeducation to the minors involved.

The reference figure is tasked with coordinating the initiatives to prevent and counter cyberbullying, in collaboration with police forces or local associations, and also with supporting school administrators in drafting their internal procedures. When made aware of acts of cyberbullying, school administrators must inform the parents of the minor involved, unless the actions involved do not constitute a crime. In the case in which a crime could have been committed, then the offices of the local police are to be informed so as to allow the relevant authorities to investigate the situation. Those who carry out acts of bullying and cyberbullying can also be charged with criminal conduct and be held liable for civil damages; if the case concerns minors, then parents, teachers, and the school can also be held responsible.


Services and projects for minors, parents and teachers

There are several educational and training projects that address bullying and cyberbullying, in addition to 24-hour active services for young people and children seeking help.

  1. Giovani Ambasciatori contro il cyberbullismo” (Young Ambassadors Against Cyberbullying) is the national campaign by the Italian Parents’ Association (MOIGE) promoted in collaboration with the Ministry of Education, the State Police, the National Association of Italian Municipalities (ANCI), the United States Embassy in Italy, Enel Cuore, Trend Micro Italia, and Intesa Sanpaolo’s charitable fund. The campaign involves raising awareness in 250 schools across Italy (over 62,000 students) through direct meetings and a network of Young Ambassadors that will become reference points to flag cases of physical and online bullying within their schools. The project includes a free hotline (+39) 800 937 070 and a dedicated SMS advice service (+39) 393 300 9090, in addition to a mobile support center to combat cyberbullying. The van is equipped with multi-functional spaces and was purchased in 2018 thanks to a donation by Enel Cuore Onlus.
  2. Generazioni Connesse” (Connected Generations) is a project coordinated by the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, co-financed by the European Commission as part of the “Connecting Europe Facility” program through which the Commission promotes strategies for making the Internet a safer place for younger users. The program includes training courses for teachers, parents and pupils, informative material for young people, parents, and schools, videos and cartoons to teach people how to behave online, and a platform dedicated to civic digital education.
  3. Safer Internet Centre (SIC) is part of the “Generazioni Connesse” project and a member of the network promoted by the European Commission; this partnership produced the online platform “Better Internet for Kids,” managed by European Schoolnet, in collaboration with INSAFE (the network that connects all of the European SICs) and Inhope (the network that connects all of the European helplines). The goal of SIC is to provide information and support to children and young people, as well as to those responsible for their digital (and non-digital) education. The purpose of the project is to make it easier to flag illegal material online in order to create a better Internet that is safer and more innovative. 
  4. Italy’s Telefono Azzurro helpline provides expert operators who are trained in every type of problem and are available to listen to kids and help them out. They can be reached at the toll-free phone number 19696 or via chat, both of which are active 24 hours a day. Furthermore, it provides a Helpline for Generazioni Connesse that is always available to teachers, school administrators, or any school employees, as well as children, teenagers, parents, or other adults who may need to talk or seek advice on managing or dealing with negative or problematic experiences concerning the use of new media.
  5. The year 2020 saw the eighth edition of “Una vita da social” (A life on social media), the travelling educational campaign run by the State Police and the Ministry of Education in the issues of social media, bullying, and cyberbullying. Over the years, operators from the postal and communications police of the previous editions have met with more than 2.5 million students, 220,000 parents, and 125,000 teachers in 18,500 schools from 350 towns and cities.
  6. For the 2020-2021 school year, the Ministry of the Interior is supporting the project “Panchine Gialle contro il bullismo e il cyberbullismo” (lit. “Yellow benches against bullying and cyberbullying”) by the charity Helpis. This NGO has been working since 2005 to help confront teenage problems in all of their forms, helping minors through direct interventions in schools, as well as training teachers and parents. The benches serve to focus attention on the issue of bullying, reminding people that the Internet can conceal risks, especially for young people.