Cape Town clinical psychologist RONEL DE VILLIERS on how cyber-bullying works, and how to stop the bullies in their tracks…
Internet bullying can lead to tragedy, but there are ways of fighting it effectively  |  Photo: Tonya Hester

Hope Witsell of Florida, USA, was a mere 13 years old when she committed suicide by hanging herself in September 2009. Four months earlier, she naively sent her boyfriend a picture of her breasts. A girl saw the picture on his cell phone and forwarded it to others. The image did the rounds of the neighbouring schools, leading to playground taunts of ‘slut’ and ‘whore’. She was disciplined by the school and grounded by her parents. With nowhere to turn in the ever-increasing mess, Hope ended her life.

A fairly recent phenomenon, cyber-bullying has elbowed its way into the lives of children, teens and adults alike. In my practice, I’m seeing an increasing number of teens and their parents wrestling with the emotional fall-out from these faceless ambushes.

Connected at the hip to their cell phones, teens are often sitting ducks for a barrage of arms-length harassment. The result? A sense of exposure and shame. Social isolation. Many report feeling helpless and unable to end incidents − switching off the cell phone or computer is only a temporary measure − and are reluctant to disclose their plight to parents and teachers, who they believe can’t help, or may make things worse.

Unlike face-to-face bullying, cyber-bullies can remain virtually anonymous, and it’s this that suspends normal social behavioural constraints. Cyber-bullies abuse the internet and other technology to hurt or embarrass others in a deliberate, repeated and hostile manner.

‘Flaming’ (online fighting using vulgar language and expressions), threats, sexual remarks, hate speech, ganging up on or ridiculing victims, posting lies, ‘outing’ (disclosure of victims’ personal information). Bullies also pose as their victims in order to publish material in their names that ridicules them, gets them into trouble or defames others.

The bully might create a screen name similar to the one used by the victim to create embarrassing/threatening situations for the victim. Another ploy is to steal victims’ passwords, hack into their accounts and send embarrassing messages or altered photographs to others. While chat hosts observe and monitor the dialogue in some chat rooms and evict offensive individuals, personal (private chat) messages sent between users are viewable only by the sender and recipient, leaving room for ‘cyber insults’.

As with the face-to-face variety, cyber-bullies often lack empathy for others with a certain level of moral disengagement. When adolescents believe ‘everyone does it’, that it’s the accepted norm, they’re more likely to follow suit. A child or teenager who doesn’t know how to handle conflict or being de-friended on Facebook might lash out and ‘flame’ in retaliation.

Yes! There are ways and means of fighting off the cyber-bullies with technology. Furthermore, the psychosocial factors behind this behaviour and the way it’s received are not set in stone.

Don’t fire back a tit-for-tat or threatening message when you get cyber-bullied, says psychologist Ronel de Villiers. Rather put your emotion into saving hurtful messages to use as evidence  |  Photo: Tonya Hester

Teens, beware what you put out there! It’s important to watch your tone when communicating online. Because the other person can’t see your facial expression or body language, your intention might be misconstrued by the recipient, resulting in unnecessary conflict or escalation into bullying. Keep intense emotion for face-to-face conversations where you can resolve things much more easily, and don’t send messages when you’re angry or upset. Once you’ve clicked on ‘send’, these words can’t be taken back. Having the self-control not to write when upset is a challenge many adults haven’t mastered either – so if you learn this now you’ll be setting yourself up well for the future! Consider that deeply personal sharing belongs in selective face-to-face encounters, not in a public spilling-of-guts on your Facebook page.

Teenagers are usually streets ahead of their parents technologically, with parents ignorant that their child is being bullied or is perpetrating cyber-torture.

But forewarned is forearmed. Parents can consider a ‘digital guardian’ on a home computer which triggers an alert for cyber-bullying on receiving certain words, and also install mobile control software (eg mymobilewatchdog) on a child’s cell phone. Receiving alerts of unapproved activity and limiting use of various applications are also considerations.

An alert on Google can also notify you and your child whenever anything about them is posted online. Block the sender of aggressive/annoying communications – they’ll no longer know when your child is online, and won’t be able to contact him/her through instant messaging. If the cyber-bully uses another screen name or communicates through others, warn the perpetrators or notify their internet service provider. This creates a record for later review which could lose them their instant messenger account.

Consider changing the email address and cell number. Nowadays email accounts enable you automatically to filter out messages from certain senders before they land in your inbox, while caller-ID can help you not to take certain calls.

When parents facilitate social accountability in their children and show them not to ignore the pain of others, fewer may cooperate with cyber-bullies by forwarding a hurtful email or adding to hateful comments on social sites.

Principals and teachers alike can help enormously by recognising the reality of cyber-bullying and ‘sexting’ (sending sexually explicit material), understanding how they work and letting pupils know their guardians are one step ahead. Open discussion during life orientation, computing classes and talks by visiting experts offer an ideal opportunity to prepare potential victims for handling abuse. Culprits can be deterred by being taught appropriate online behaviour and having the consequences of their actions spelt out to them. Teaching the safe use of technology rather than banning it appears to be the solution.

Where possible, it’s important to encourage bullies to connect with their better selves by affirming their positive traits and values so that they’re more likely to be receptive to messages highlighting the negative impact of cyber-bullying on victims.

Finally, as the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. Where individuals, families and schools endorse compassion, connectedness, the celebration of individuality and diversity, belonging, tolerance, grace, empathy and forgiveness, a caring society can be built.

Are YOU a cyber-bully (even by mistake)?

‘Martin Luther King said: In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. Cyber-bullying isn’t cool or funny. Few cyber-bullying attacks can succeed without the complacency and complicit apathy of bystanders. If you do nothing while a friend or classmate’s reputation is torn to pieces, you add to his/her pain and isolation and your silence condones what is happening. While you might be keeping a low profile, fearful of being targeted yourself, you’ll be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork in collective support once they realise the bully’s isolating tactic has been countered’ – Psychologist Ronel de Villiers

Empower yourself! What to do if someone picks on you…

  • Act! Immediately report the incident to your parent/teacher
  • Don’t fire back with a tit-for-tat or threatening message
  • Don’t forward cyber-bullying messages
  • Save evidence by recording dates, times and descriptions of incidents. Save and print screenshots, emails and text messages to report to web and cell phone providers
  • Block the bully. Delete the person from your email contacts and block their instant messaging connection. Delete the person from your social networks and prevent further contact. Block their cell number on your phone

‘I was cyber-bullied’

SA teens and teachers on the internet’s dark side

‘At first I thought they were my friends. It was my first year in high school and we were in the same cricket team. They started by making jokes about me being vain. I just laughed. Then they made a fake Instagram account in my name and posted hashtags like #ilovemyself and so on. They pretended to be me and joined embarrassing groups I’d never join. They posted pictures of me which they took in class when I wasn’t aware. I didn’t know what to do because if I told anybody they’d call me a snitch, which would have been far worse, so I just tried to ignore it. But it got really bad. I felt powerless and unsure of what to do. Eventually a friend told someone at school, the boys ended up at a disciplinary hearing and they all stopped and apologised to me. I felt much better afterwards.’ Schoolboy, 15 (13 when bullied)

‘A friend posted a photo of the two of us on Facebook and added an upsetting comment about weight that I felt was directed at me. I was at a very sensitive stage, and ended up not speaking to her for six months. I channelled my discomfort into exploring other interests and my worldview broadened. As a result, I’ve grown emotionally since then and am more comfortable with myself – I’m braver and more able to deal with criticism positively. I also have a strong friendship group.’ Schoolgirl, 16 (12 at time of incident)

‘Parental involvement is important – the parents of one of our families reserve the right to pick up their child’s phone without warning and check its content. If they find anything unpleasant, they confiscate the phone for a period of time.’ Teacher, girls’ primary school

‘Youth and adults need to keep an open mind to each other’s wisdom on social media. The difficulty with it is that it excludes important non-verbal cues – tone of voice, body language and context – that inform us as to how someone else is encountering our words. This can result in a failure to realise the consequences of our communication. It definitely helps a child to have a strong friendship group and an ability to take the long view.’ Psychologist, boys’ primary school

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