Bullying & Prevention: What Does it Look Like in a Pandemic?

By Autumn Sandlin, Communications Manager

Last October, I wrote about steps schools and parents can take to aid in bullying prevention.  Since then, the ways in which we operate our lives have changed. While it is important to acknowledge the ways in which the previous blog post described school staff and parents address bullying prevention, it would be remiss to acknowledge that things have not changed in the previous year. Yet even with all of these changes, youth are still being subjected to bullying.  

In April 2020, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) released an article outlining the “risk of harm” children would face during the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic as things increasingly moved online. UNICEF estimated 1.5 billion children globally would be affected by school closures in the spring. With stay-at-home orders issued at a rapid pace at the beginning of the pandemic, it wasn’t just school that moved online. Social activities did as well. Everyone’s lives seemed to shift and move online. This shift was made to keep us safe from COVID-19 but also opened up an opportunity for an increase in cyberbullying among youth.

Common cyberbullying tactics, as defined by StopBullying.gov, are:

  • Posting or sharing harmful comments and rumors that are mean, hurtful, and embarrassing.
  • Threatening physical harm to someone or encouraging them to kill themselves.
  • Pretending to be someone else online in order to solicit or post false, personal information.
  • Posting mean or hateful comments or names about any race, religion, ethnicity, or other personal characteristics.
  • Doxxing, or sharing private data and information about someone to harm them online.

So why does cyberbullying happen? According to StopBullying.gov, it’s difficult to characterize an individual profile of who bullies. Pop culture suggests those who bully tend to be popular or enjoy an elevated hierarchical status at school. While that may hold some semblance of truth, in reality, there are also students who feel as if they don’t fit neatly into one clique or another who bully as well. You cannot look at a youth and determine whether they are bullying or not by their appearance. It is part of what makes prevention so important.

We know that cyberbullying happens in a world where there isn’t a pandemic. So what about COVID-19 makes things look a little different? As mentioned previously, school and social activities have moved online in the past few months. There have been increased stressors such as job loss, evictions, and/or food scarcities due to business closures. There are anxieties over catching COVID-19. There are racial tensions and protests. Young people can be affected by all of these stressors – either directly or through their environment. If you couple the feeling of powerlessness, increased screen time, boredom, and societal differences, the main stressors have been exacerbated by the pandemic, and the opportunity for cyberbullying is created. 

According to Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Center, caregivers should start the conversation about cyberbullying as soon as a youth begins using technology. The language you use will be different for a five-year-old who primarily does virtual Kindergarten than it will be for your sixth-grader who has their own phone. There should be clear and consistent guidelines established for technology usage. These guidelines should include any relevant time limits, as well as any limits on apps, platforms, or websites caregivers, may have concerns about. Ensure that parental controls are in place for youth who may need it and set rules for sharing of passwords and access to a youth’s devices. It’s important for caregivers and youth to work together to make sure they have privacy but are also using technology appropriately. These ground rules will help youth feel more confident if they encounter cyberbullying or witness someone else being cyberbullied.

Cyberbullying can be hard to pinpoint because of the anonymity of the internet. If a youth is being cyberbullied, caregivers should ensure that they are being supportive and affirming of the youth and their experience. Listen to what happened and reassure that it was not their fault. If it is clear that the bullying behavior is coming from a classmate, make sure to document evidence of the bullying by taking screenshots and saving emails. You should then contact the youth’s school to ensure that you are all working together on a plan that benefits both the youth and the youth who is bullying. If it is someone anonymous on the internet, report their social media accounts, and encourage the youth to block them. It may also be a time to discuss any additional changes in the technology rules that have been mutually agreed upon. The youth shouldn’t be punished or feel like they are being punished for something out of their control, but discussing and reassessing their internet safety is not a bad thing.

Things have been so hectic this year, it feels almost impossible to think about another issue that could affect young people –on top of everything else, but the opportunity to cyberbully and experience cyberbullying is still there. It’s important to have productive, empathetic, supportive conversations with youth about their experiences with technology. Cyberbullying happens – even during a pandemic.

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