CYBERBULLYING was already a problem before the covid-19 pandemic hit. In Australia, for example, one in five young people reported in 2017 that they had been socially excluded, threatened or abused online, and the same proportion said they had participated in cyberbullying themselves. Then lockdowns and work-from-home orders came into force, meaning even more time was spent online.
Yet when it comes to cyberbullying, the pandemic has had a different effect than you might expect. Although we have been online more, some studies show that cyberbullying has decreased. The reasons behind this could tell us how to better tackle this problem once we emerge from the pandemic.
Unlike in-person bullying, cyberbullying can occur 24/7 and has a stronger association with suicidal ideation. We know that teenagers already spend a lot of time online, and that is increasing. A survey of people aged 10 to 18 in 11 European countries during the 2020 spring lockdowns found that nearly half of them felt they were experiencing “online overuse”. They were online for 6.5 hours per weekday on average, and around half of that time was related to school. In 2018, the comparable number was 2.7 hours per day.
Previously, more time online had been linked with an increased chance of participating in cyberbullying. Studies have also shown that stress and anxiety have increased during the pandemic, both of which can drive increases in anger and cyberbullying.
Yet this phenomenon has actually decreased during the pandemic. One study looked at school cyberbullying in the US using Google search data. Trends in the search term “cyberbullying” have previously matched up with actual survey data about it. This study found that searches for both “cyberbullying” and “bullying” dropped by 30 to 40 per cent relative to historical norms after US schools adopted remote learning.
Another study involving South Korean schoolchildren found that the proportion of school-aged children that were either cyberbullying or being cyberbullied decreased from 27 per cent in 2019 to 23 per cent in 2020.
What’s going on? One reason for the decline is that in-person interactions can fuel both online and in-person bullying. Bullying tends to start in unstructured time, which doesn’t exist in the same way in online schooling. This suggests if we focus prevention efforts on unstructured time, it is likely we will stop both traditional bullying and cyberbullying.
Bullying rates aren’t fixed. When children feel nurtured and socially and emotionally safe, they bully less. During the pandemic, young people have spent more time at home with their parent or carer. For some, this has probably provided feelings of safety – a positive effect well known to occur in times of disaster or crisis.
Positive relationships also help reduce bullying. While some families have had interpersonal conflicts during the crisis, most households worldwide have reported increased cohesion and positive bonding between family members. Studies have shown that children reflected positively about spending more time with family. Keeping these positive relationships strong may also help prevent bullying in the future.
Unstructured play is key to the development of self-esteem, self-determination and the ability to self-regulate – all vital parts of emotional development that help prevent children bullying and protect them from being bullied.
The answer isn’t to get rid of unstructured time. But by making it a more nurturing environment backed up by positive relationships, the reduction in cyberbullying seen during the pandemic may stick around for some time.
Need a listening ear? UK Samaritans: 116123 (samaritans.org). Visit bit.ly/SuicideHelplines for hotlines and websites for other countries
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