When might some children begin to bully their classmates online? According to Justin W. Patchin, Ph.D., a professor of criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, children as young as 8 years old can start cyberbullying.
He knows because, according to his bio, Patchin has explored the intersection of teens and technology, with particular focus on cyberbullying, social networking, and sexting. Patchin and Dr. Sameer Hinduja co-founded and co-direct the Cyberbullying Research Center. In this era of virtual learning, their work has become even more vital.
Why Cyberbullying Matters
If you came of age before the digital revolution, you may want to get up to speed by reading Miriam Barker’s BBC article, “Bullying: Schoolmates ‘told me to die’ in online posts.” She clearly articulates why cyberbullying matters. Barker interviewed children and young adults who have experienced online bullying and writes about how it differs from in-person bullying. The stories she shares are heartbreaking.
While the tragic stories of cyberbullying may sound similar to those you’ve heard about — or experienced — with face-to-face bullying, there are crucial differences. For example, there’s no “off-switch” for bullies who hide behind technology. Dismissal bells don’t sound to signal a reprieve from bullying at the end of a class or a school day. There are fewer barriers to online abuse. Perpetrators have more confidence about their ability to get away with cyberbullying, according to Barker’s article.
Those who are targeted by online bullies know that the abuse won’t end when they come home from school. They rarely get a reprieve, because staying away from their digital devices isn’t feasible. The pain is constant for them.
Online Bullying Has Its Moment
That makes cyberbullying even more insidious than in-person bullying. It’s particularly important to understand this now, because the pandemic has heightened stress and increased opportunities for online bullying. Kids may be more isolated now than ever, because many of them are learning remotely. After school activities, sports, and get-togethers with friends may have been suspended for the foreseeable future. Essentially, cyberspace is their world.
Online bullying has found its moment, and unfortunately, cyberbullies are leveraging the opportunity to ambush people of all ages. Even the youngest children aren’t exempt. Parents and educators may be at a loss about what to do. However, according to Patchin, there are ways to manage the problem of online bullying.
How Schools Can Manage Cyberbullying
To begin, schools must acknowledge their role in preventing online bullying, Justin W. Patchin explains. Educators must teach digital citizenship as part of their curriculum and explain how online behaviors impact relationships in the real world.
What educators struggle with, Patchin adds, are finding the resources to do it. “They would love to have an hour a day to talk about being safe online, but realistically, that doesn’t happen. Instead, they typically shoehorn it in when they can during an advisory period.” However, Patchin adds, educators realize that it’s their role to get involved. “If something happens online, it will end up in their school building,” he says. That could cause legal liability issues. Nobody wants that.
Tweens and Cyberbullying Research
Until now, most researchers assumed that only older children were affected by online bullying. However, that isn’t the case. We now know that even younger children can become ensnared by cyberbullies. You can read about the first nationwide study about tweens and cyberbullying conducted in the United States by the Cyberbullying Research Center here.
Research shows that more than half of the tweens who see online bulling are willing to step in. That’s good news. They may not always know the best way to do that, though. Patchin believes we need to educate tweens about the most effective, and the safest, ways to intervene.
He recommends that “upstanders” counter cyberbullying by saying something positive, if they can. They might also take a screen shot. That can be useful when they report the problem to the site or app, or to the teacher or a parent. Other strategies include reaching out to the perpetrator or blocking the person. “Just take care that you don’t do anything that might tempt the bullies to come after you,” Patchin suggests.
Patchin also points out that there are ways to empower kids to protect themselves from cyberbulling. Use caution about whom you befriend or interact with online, he advises. “The race is to have as many [online] friends as possible,” Patchin says, “because that’s social currency. But if you follow the wrong people, that opens up a pathway to potential problems.”
He urges kids to avoid posting or saying anything online that might attract the attention of trolls. “Don’t open yourself up to be a target,” he emphasizes. “Be careful about what you post online so you don’t give them ammunition.”
Patchin concludes, “And avoid retaliating if you are mistreated online. Bullying, by definition, is a one-way flow of information. If you retaliate, that turns online bullying into a disagreement or conflict. If you obscure the line between the two, you’ll both get in trouble.”