Cyberbullying is having a significant impact on young people in Australia – what happens online can have real and lasting negative consequences. But where do we start when it comes to tackling the issue? And what role do governments and schools play in addressing this social problem? Journalist Sara El Sayed explores the issue.
It would be arguably impossible to find a school community in Australia where some form of bullying was not occurring. The prevalence of social media – while revolutionising the way young people connect with their peers – has exacerbated the impact of bullying, and the potential for it to occur all day, every day. According to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, up to 25% of children and young people in Australia experience cyberbullying.
However, while cyberbullying is a real problem, it does not exist in a silo. The answer to solving the problem requires addressing all forms of bullying, not just online.
Dr Hannah Thomas of the Queensland Centre for Mental Health Research (QCMHR) conducted research on the prevalence of bullying experiences in a national study of young people aged 11 to 17 years.
“We found approximately 72% of kids who had experienced bullying had been bullied in just face to face situations, and about 27% had been bullied both face to face and cyberbullied.
“Very few children had been cyberbullied only: around 1%. This demonstrates that while cyberbullying is an important issue, we must recognise that these behaviours are happening in face to face domains as well.
“We shouldn’t completely shift our focus to solely cyberbullying, when the majority of kids who are experiencing cyberbullying are also experiencing face to face bullying at school by people they know.”
Real impacts of bullying
Bullying affects emotional wellbeing, capacity to learn and relationships with family and friends. Dr Holly Erskine of QCMHR said bullying was prevalent across the globe, across all ages, and the adverse effects of bullying and cyberbullying on a young person’s mental health can persist into adulthood.
“There are definitely long term impacts,” Dr Erskine said. As part of her work, Dr Erskine and her colleagues had bullying recognised as an official risk factor for depression and anxiety in the Global Burden of Disease Study.
“We found approximately 10% and 12% of the burden of depression and anxiety in 10-24 year olds in Australia, respectively, was due to being bullied.
“By identifying bullying as a risk factor, we’ve identified a potential way we can prevent mental disorders, as bullying behaviour is something we have the capacity to address.
“Therefore addressing bullying may help prevent mental health issues in the long term.”
Taskforce seeks to tackle issues
In February 2018 the Queensland Anti-Cyberbullying Taskforce was appointed by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk to develop a framework to address cyberbullying of children and young people in Queensland, and recommend community and government action.
Dr Thomas and Dr Erskine submitted a summary of their research findings to the taskforce to inform understandings of the prevalence and critical nature of the issue, and to inform the taskforce’s recommendations.
The Adjust our Settings report was subsequently published in September 2018, outlining a framework that highlighted a holistic approach to tackling issues to do with cyberbullying among young people.
The framework recommends a whole-of-community approach to addressing cyberbullying, with specific recommendations relating to:
- parents and carers
- schools and students
- wider community members
- young people who are post school age
- social media use, and
- changes to legislation.
The Taskforce developed eight recommendations related to schools and students for consideration. Among these recommendations are:
- requirements for schools to deliver evidence based whole-of-school programs
- intervention strategy training for teachers and preservice teachers
- expectations for all schools to have clear, transparent, readily accessible and easily understood policies and procedures to address cyberbullying, and
- the commissioning of an independent evaluation of the effectiveness of current processes to address reported incidents of cyberbullying across all school sectors.
Dr Thomas said a whole-of-school approach was necessary.
“It’s important for schools to implement proactive strategies that take a preventative approach to this issue.
“It’s about embedding antibullying practices and beliefs within the school culture: embedded within the curriculum to develop students’ social and emotional skills, and embedded within the ethos of the school to foster students’ sense of belonging to the community.”
Empathy is key, and support to allow teachers the capacity to foster strong relationships with students is essential.
“When there is more empathy within a particular school community, when teacher student relationships are really strong and positive, when parents are involved and parents can play an active role in their young person’s experiences at school, we tend to find less bullying,” Dr Thomas said.
“We need to take a community wide approach where we involve teachers, we involve parents, and we involve students in this issue – rather than a top down approach."
Dr Erskine said teachers are already dealing with a lot, and noted the need for support measures to be put in place to achieve what the recommendations envisage.
“Teachers are dealing with students with a range of different needs and from a range of different backgrounds, so it’s a matter of ensuring that there is sufficient support for teachers and educators.”
Where to from here?
While the Queensland Taskforce has developed recommendations to address the issues, there is still a need for greater understanding of the issue and of its prevalence nationally.
The Taskforce recommends a national approach to understanding the true prevalence of cyberbullying across Australia.
This would involve the commissioning and funding of research to measure the national prevalence and impact of bullying and cyberbullying among children and young people on an annual basis.
Dr Thomas’s research has resulted in the development of tools with the capacity to do this.
“We have developed a way to be able to do this using an anonymous self reports scale that measures the different forms of bullying – face to face and cyber.
“Students are responsive to these types of surveys.
“It is paramount that we give all Australian students a voice in sharing the experiences they have safely and in a way that can inform real approaches to address the problem.”
IEUA-QNT Branch Secretary Terry Burke said the prevalence of cyberbullying has real impacts on the professional responsibilities of teachers.
“In caring for their students it is becoming increasingly difficult to manage instances of bullying – particularly when it happens online.
“Schools must take responsibility in ensuring structures are in place to prevent such behaviour.
“The recommendations developed by the Taskforce show that there is work to be done, and it is now up to employers to ensure appropriate resources are provided to address this issue in schools,” Burke said.
At time of writing it is unclear to what extent the Taskforce’s recommendations will be adopted by other state and territory governments, as well as federally.
To read the full Taskforce report visit campaigns.premiers.qld.gov.au/antibullying/taskforce/