We must teach young people about cyber-bullying

It has been suggested that cyber-bullying is a 'girl thing', while boys are more likely to engage in physical bullying. Picture: Getty
It has been suggested that cyber-bullying is a 'girl thing', while boys are more likely to engage in physical bullying. Picture: Getty
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Social media sites allows 24-hour abuse, says Sarah Pedersen

Traditional face-to-face bullying may be confined to one or two spheres of life – for example, school – and one group of people.

Since the introduction of social media websites it has become possible for the bully (and the victim) to interact 24 hours a day. Such cyber-bullying may even involve people who have never met. Cyber-bullying can be more appealing to the bully and more difficult for the victim to defend against.

It has been suggested that the indirect aggression of cyber-bullying is a “girl thing”, while boys are more likely to engage in physical bullying. Cyber-bullies often do not understand the effect that their bullying has on their victim, seeing their actions as funny and entertaining. Meanwhile, their 24-hour victims feel hounded, attacked and, in the worse cases, suicidal.

But cyberspace can also provide a safe space for the exploration of identity associated with adolescence. Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are now an essential part of teenagers’ lives. Adolescence is a time of identity formation, of exploring who you want to be and experimenting with the way you present yourself to the world – whether through the way you dress, the music you listen to or the people you hang out with. While such rites of passage used to be enacted in bedrooms, youth clubs and bus shelters, the internet now offers a convenient venue for adolescent experimentation. Therefore it is important that we do not respond to cyber-bullying by expecting teens to simply cut their connection to social media.

Seven out of ten have experience of cyber-bullying

Different studies have found different rates of cyber-bullying among teenagers. The UK charity 2012 Beatbullying’s Virtual Violence II report suggested that 28 per cent of all teens have been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated by an individual or a group through the use of mobile phones or the internet. Another UK anti-bullying charity, Ditch the Label, published a report suggesting that seven out of ten young people have experience of cyber-bullying and one in five experience it on a daily basis.

My research agrees with these figures but also points to another issue. In 2010, I collaborated with Shed Media Scotland to conduct a survey of the fans of their teen soap opera Being Victor. The survey asked the teens “How safe are you online?” and investigated risk-taking behaviour on the internet. Some 60 per cent of respondents admitted they had been victims of cyber-bullying, such as having untrue rumours spread about them, being sent threatening messages or having embarrassing photos posted online.

Both boys and girls were victims – in fact, boys were more likely to tell me that they had received threatening messages online. This questions the common idea that girls are more at risk of cyber-bullying than boys. We need to make sure that boys do not get the message that only girls need to be careful online.

Victims might also be bullies. Some 44 per cent of respondents admitted to some sort of cyber-bullying and half of those who admitted sending a threatening message online had also received them.

Frape/Facebook rape

The final question I asked was on the subject of “frape”, or “Facebook rape”. This recent addition to the English language refers to the nasty phenomenon where a person leaves their computer unattended while logged on to Facebook and others use the opportunity to change information on their personal page, usually to embarrass or humiliate.

This is an issue that has not been specifically studied in previous research. In fact, most “frapers” do not see fraping as bullying. While this may be true of many frapes – changing information on Facebook to make someone look as though they are a Justin Bieber fan, for example – other frapes, such as posting homophobic, sexist or racist statements should, I believe, be considered cyber-bullying. I say this because of the distress it may cause both the victim of the frape and the readers of that page, who may not realise that a frape has occurred.

My survey showed that frape was popular amongst boys in middle adolescence and it was a reciprocal behaviour – those who were fraped also admitting fraping.

We need to continue to educate young people about cyber-bullying. We need to encourage them to think about what sort of behaviour constitutes cyber-bullying – and ask them whether any of their behaviour online might be perceived by others as bullying. What may seem like a joke to them may be seen very differently by the victim and a wider audience.

• Sarah Pedersen is a professor in the Department of Communication, Marketing & Media, Aberdeen Business School, Robert Gordon University, www.rgu.ac.uk

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