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Why cybersafety tips donít work for cyberbullying

By Marilyn Campbell - posted Thursday, 20 August 2009


Research into cyberbullying in Australia has been slow. This is partly because rigorous research takes time, both to conduct, to analyse and to publish. In addition, Australian governments and other decision makers did not realise that cyberbullying was happening until there was greater media attention to the problem in the last few years. This meant that there was no serious research money allocated to cyberbullying research in Australia until about two years ago.

In addition, initial research has mainly looked at how many students have been cyberbullied and what were the consequences. As far as I know there is only one large research project which is looking at what programs actually work to prevent and/or intervene in cyberbullying in Australia and that will take time to ascertain. However, our society wants quick fixes and they want a quick fix for cyberbullying.

I think that is why “what to do” about cyberbullying is now the agenda of cybersafety experts and not bullying experts. This is unfortunate because while cybersafety experts are very knowledgeable about giving advice about safety aspects such as how to protect one’s self from pedophiles and not accessing pornography, their expertise does not usually extend to Internet addiction and bullying, which is usually more the domain of psychologists.

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I suppose that because there is a dearth of information, people are amazingly eager to give advice or to promote programs which lack any formal evaluation or research. This often leads to “agony aunt” advice which in the long term might cause more harm than good. For instance:

On the Cybersmart website (set up by the Australian Communications for Media and Technology) the first tip on cyberbullying for children is:

"Ignore it. If they don’t get a response they may get bored and go away."

This is simplistic advice. Yes, if someone is mean to you, one does not retaliate by being mean to them. However, if you are bullied, because of the imbalance of power in your relationship with that person (either they are older or stronger or have positional power) then you cannot defend yourself because by definition you are disempowered. You are afraid of the bully or bullies.

This advice also seems to assume that it is one mean message and not the repetition that is involved in bullying. Bullying is fear producing because it is relentless; and cyberbullying even more so. Do you ignore the text messages on your mobile at 11pm and again at 12pm and then 1am and 2am?

The only criteria that could even recognise that this advice was meant to be about bullying is that it was mean. If the three tenets of bullying have not been met - imbalance of power, intent to hurt and repetition - then it is not bullying. Bullying is a social relationship problem that is deeply embedded in our culture. Bullying hurts.

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Why are people telling children to ignore being hurt? Is it because that was the advice given to these people when they were children? “If someone is bullying you, don’t let them see you are afraid, ignore them, don’t fight them.” “Ignore the big boy who is demanding your tuckshop money” - at your peril! Ignore being hurt by the cyberbully? The underlying message here for a victim is, don’t do anything, don’t tell anyone. I know the tip is meaning to say don’t fight back. But if you are really bullied and are scared of the person because of the imbalance of power, hardly anyone fights back.

The next tip is "Block the person. This will stop you seeing messages from a particular person."

This is the same as saying, if the bullies are in the toilet block, don’t go to the toilet. Yes, it might give you some temporary abatement from the bullying but usually if someone is intent on hurting you they will find other ways, either to overcome the block or to “get” you by other mediums.

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About the Author

Dr Marilyn Campbell is an associate professor in the school of Learning and Professional Studies, Faculty of Education at Queensland University of Technology. Her research interests are in behavioural and emotional problems in children and adolescents. Her recent work has included research into anxiety prevention and intervention as well as the effects of bullying and especially cyberbullying in schools. She is the author of the Worrybusters series of books for anxious children.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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