“How would you know if your child was being cyberbullied?” That is the chilling question posed by Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySociaLife, SA’s leading expert on online safety and digital life skills in schools, during this week’s Anti-Bullying Week in South Africa, Originated by the Anti-Bullying Alliance, this year’s theme is ‘One Kind Word.’
“The reality is that a surprising number of teens, and even pre-teens, won’t share fears or online abuse with you, as much as 40% have admitted they don’t want to open up, because they are worried parents may get angry, or be disappointed, or cause them embarrassment. Students share this in our school online safety program. We need to deeply rethink our approach to support them.”
Many adults hear the term ‘bullying’ or ‘cyberbullying’ and can easily assume this is the behaviour of immature school cliques. Still, in reality, bullying is driven by power dynamics, fear, insecurity, anxiety or personal exposure to aggressive and dominant behaviour that results in harassment and the invisible erosion of self-esteem. The impact causes the victim harm and can also extend into repeated behaviours by the perpetrator later in life, directed towards a colleague, employee, spouse, or partner.
Several studies in recent years have shown South Africa has rated in the top ten in the world for cyberbullying – identified as when a child causes physical or emotional harm. Online, the behaviour is peaking at the age of 13, 14 and 15 years of age. “We have a one-hour lesson that specifically covers all forms of online abuse, such as catfishing, outing, flaming, trolling, shaming, exclusion, image-based violence, and that’s just a few of them. We explore the topic of empathy, and show the consequences which can go as far as some students committing suicide. Cyberbullying is an invisible tormentor. It hides behind screens, evading parents and teachers. Even friends can miss the signs. Low self-esteem can make kids assume they deserve to be bullied or inhibit their ability to recognise it. Tweens and teens fear retaliation and worry that speaking up will only make things worse,” he adds.
McCoubrey explains why the challenge is not just technological but environmental, “We want to blame devices for cyberbullying, but it’s more of a tool for bullying and not a reason for it. We have to understand the anxiety and anger that sits within our society, which has been aggravated by socio-economic challenges, isolation during the pandemic and a surge of online users that have yet to be equipped by educators. That’s why bullying in South Africa is a crisis and not just a problem. Due to the leadership vacuum in this country, financial pressure in homes, and disconnected life skills and digital education, kids are acting out online in the same way they used to act out physically. South Africa is one of the more prominent cyberbullying nations in some studies. Education departments need to realise the powerful influence of social media and games and use them intelligently, re-directing the use of devices and platforms towards positive outcomes instead of negative ones. It is possible, but we are way behind right now. There’s a generational and technological divide.”
According to Legalwise, South Africa’s CyberCrimes Act “criminalises a wide variety of cybercrimes. However, examples of crimes specifically associated with cyberbullying include electronic messages or social media posts towards a person that incite or threaten that person with violence or damage to their property; and the disclosure of intimate images of an identifiable person without their consent or link an identifiable person to such an image in the description of a data message. Intimate images refer to nude images, images of a person’s private parts (even if that person is wearing clothes), or edited images where a person is identifiable. With regards to children, these cybercrimes will also form part of the Child Justice Act 75 of 2008, which regulates how children will be dealt with when they are accused of committing crimes and what consequences they will face. Imprisonment may be imposed for children between the ages of 10 and 18, but only as a last resort and for the shortest period possible.”
McCoubrey concludes, “Our best shot lies in education. Suppose we can assume that robust values-driven leadership may not change any time soon. In that case, we only have the opportunity to show the youth the benefits of digital citizenship, empathy, privacy settings, communication in conflict, how to manage cyberbullying, and how to self-regulate. These skills are something every child can call on when an adult may not know what’s happening. It’s their armour. There has to be an incentive for them. Every small positive decision – every kind word – can lead to a better path in life, but someone needs to light the way. Ironically, teaching them through social media and popular culture and showing them their choices and the consequences really do work. They can relate to it. Our program has proven to have a real impact on students in acting as that beacon that shows them the fork in the road to make better choices.”