Evidence shows cyberbullying is increasing. Fortifying families against the harm it can cause should be one of our highest priorities.
We need educators, police, community groups and organisations like eSafety to work together to achieve this, providing current, relevant and accessible information and support.
Cyberbullying can take many forms but typically involves cruel name-calling, distributing offensive images or videos, creating impersonation accounts, threats of violence, or harassment.
One of the most distressing aspects of this online abuse is that it is often invisible to the adults in a child’s life who can help: parents, carers and teachers. Yet simultaneously, it may be highly visible to the target’s peers, friends and social networks.
The experience of being bullied online can feel claustrophobic, all-enveloping, and impossible to escape. Unlike physical bullying, where for most children the threat ends at the front door, cyberbullying follows the target into their home, into their bedrooms, into their sanctuary. It is ever-present, looming, always there.
Complaints about cyberbullying to eSafety have been on the rise, especially since the pandemic. Last financial year, we saw an increase of 65% compared to 2020-21, with most behaviour occurring on Instagram, followed by Snapchat, TikTok, and Facebook – a breakdown that reflects the popularity of certain social media platforms among children.
Consistently, over the years, research has shown that about one in five children experiences some form of cyberbullying. Girls are bullied more than boys, and the average age of a target is 14. However, we are seeing younger children appear in our complaints data – children who shouldn’t yet be navigating social media.
The pandemic effect
Some of the increase in reports to eSafety is explained through the concentrated reliance on connected technologies that emerged from the pandemic.
When Australians moved online in greater numbers than ever before to study, work, communicate and connect through lockdowns, we saw an across-the-board rise in complaints to eSafety.
We know that parents’ approach to managing screen-time became more permissive through this difficult time – I can count myself in that number! We often talk about parents and carers being the first line of defence, and I think that the pandemic highlighted just how critical a role they play in filtering risks and threats.
To a greater extent than ever before, our children are spending time in digital playgrounds such as Roblox, Minecraft, Fortnite. They are communicating over an array of social media services, creating content for TikTok, engaging with players from around the world, and completing homework.
Very often, the content of these communications, the composition of their friends lists, and the narratives that define our children’s relationships online are only vaguely understood by parents – if at all.
Recently, we published research about the experiences of children and their parents online – the Mind the Gap report. The study involved interviews and surveys of three-and-a-half thousand young people aged 8 to 17, and their parents. The results were sobering.
A majority of children talk to strangers online, with 55% communicating with someone they first met on the internet.
Many have had negative experiences, with almost half being treated in a hurtful or nasty way. Just over ten percent have experienced hate speech, and about the same number had their sensitive personal information posted without their consent.
Their experiences have produced feelings of anger, sadness, and isolation. About one in five children reported feeling powerless, or that their mental health was affected.
Happily, many children took some form of positive action. They blocked the person causing them grief, changed their settings, or just deleted the material.
Parental awareness may be low
More than two-thirds of children told their parents about what had happened online. However, the research also highlighted that parental awareness of their children’s experiences was low.
This was especially acute in relation to cyberbullying. While 69% of children told their parents that they had been treated hurtfully online, only 51% of parents were aware it had happened.
A further 65% of children who had treated someone hurtfully online told their parents about their actions, yet that was only recalled by about half.
This disconnect shows that there is more work to do to reach parents and strengthen their online safety skills. Using every available channel to increase parents’ awareness of the risks faced online, but also the resources to help – such as those available through eSafety’s extensive eSafety Guide – is crucial.
Through our complaints and investigations data, we see a strong connection between cyberbullying and what is happening in the school community.
Prior to the pandemic and the disruption of the usual school year, complaints to eSafety about cyberbullying peaked about midway through the school term, subsiding during holidays. This rhythm has now returned, and the issues we see playing out online are invariably and intimately connected to the social dynamic of the yard and the classroom.
Schools, therefore, have a crucial role to play in detecting, and correcting behaviours that spill over into online spaces; and to ensure policies are in place that clarify expectations of students.
However, this is an issue that cannot be solved by any one organisation working alone, or in a silo.
It takes a village
It is often said that it takes a village to raise a child. We should expand that to also protecting our children – this is a whole-of-community issue.
eSafety continues to work with police and educators across the country to enhance awareness of our role and functions. This includes efforts to update and strengthen MOUs with police, and to improve the quality of information they provide about online harms on their websites.
We are discussing enhanced training for police on how to respond to these harms when reported to them. In September, I also presented to the national forum of police commissioners to talk about our work, and to encourage the strongest operational relationships with their members.
My teams have also met with education sectors across every state and territory to distribute stakeholder kits, advise on cyberbullying policies, and present at conferences.
We have discussed enhancements to teacher professional learning and have developed on-demand professional learning on incident management for critical online incidents.
Online safety education programs delivered through our Trusted eSafety Provider program continue to reach hundreds of thousands of students every year and our own webinars have reached many thousands more.
Building links with the mental health sector has been a priority, and recently we held an information session for more than 25 key mental health, families and community organisations. We have trained Kids Helpline counselling staff and are working closely with headspace to assist with wrap-around support for schools.
Our eSafety Champions Network is designed so that each school has an eSafety point of contact: a teacher, a wellbeing professional or staff member who makes online safety a priority in their school.
In April this year, I also established a Youth Advisory Council to focus on the challenges young people face online, and to advise eSafety on solutions. It is made up of 25 young people aged 13 to 24 and has met twice already.
Working together for change
I’m confident all these initiatives will help but, as eSafety Commissioner, I am keen to hear more ideas for improving our response to cyberbullying.
I embrace the possibilities that creative thinking can produce through the combined experience and expertise across the community.
While the problems are legion, and sometimes seem overwhelming, I believe there is great strength in numbers.
By working across levels of government, between schools and households, through peer groups and parents, we will find a way.
This blog post is an edited version of a speech delivered by eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant to the NSW Antibullying Roundtable