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Cyberbullying: a new approach

To mark Anti-Bullying Week 2017 Parent Zone examines recent research on bullying online and off.

How big is the problem?

Research reveals conflicting numbers of young people who report being bullied.

Ditch the Label’s recent Annual Bullying Survey 2017 found that just over half of young people (aged 12-20) say they’ve been bullied at some point in their life, with one in five reporting that it had occurred in the last year. 17% say they’ve been cyberbullied.[1]

Last year’s Ofcom’s media use and attitudes report found that 11% of 8-11-year-olds and 13% of 12-15-year-olds had experienced some form of bullying in the past 12 months, with 8-11-year-olds more likely to be bullied in person than online. For older children, the research found that figure to be split evenly at 50:50.[2]

Whatever the numbers, there is a general agreement that bullying is perceived as a widespread problem by young people and that when practised online it can have even more distressing consequences than traditional offline bullying had had over the years. There is, though, some debate about how much the online world is to blame, or whether it just offers new and pernicious ways for bullies to target those they pick on.

Offline vs online bullying

Fear of the unknown Anonymity is often a feature of cyberbullying. Offline bullying usually involves verbal or physical threats in person, so the victim generally knows who is targeting them. With online bullying, the perpetrator isn’t necessarily known, due to the use of anonymous apps such as Sarahah and setting up fake social media accounts. This means that traditional ways of calling out or shaming perpetrators will not work if their identity is unknown.

No escape Online bullying can take place anywhere, at any time, and follow those being bullied into the safety of their own home, meaning victims often feel like there’s nowhere to hide. Whereas adults may have once advised that young people who are being bullied online just stay offline, this is becoming increasingly impractical in a digital world where we’re constantly ‘connected’.

Is screen time a factor? People who spend extended periods of time online are reportedly more likely to be both bullied, and to bully others. This has been described as ‘a unique element that’s not often seen in traditional, physical bullying’.

What can be done?

  • In its latest report, What can 12.9 million conversations teach us about mental health?, Ditch the Label analysed conversations online to see what people are saying about mental health. They found that parents in forums are blaming social media for cyberbullying and for adding pressure on young people. One of its key findings was that ‘bullying is a measurable catalyst for mental health symptoms.’

Its recent survey found that 71% of those it spoke to felt social networks aren’t doing enough to help prevent cyberbullying.

  • The Duke of Cambridge is heading a Taskforce on the Prevention of Cyberbullying, which has enlisted industry, including social networks, to try to come up with ways to combat bullying online, as well as working with young people themselves.
  • Anti-bullying organisation, Respect Me, says that responses to cases of bullying will be more effective if we address ‘online bullying as part of a whole anti-bullying approach, not as a separate area of work or policy’ emphasising the need for consistency.
    They also believe that ‘labelling children and young people as “bullies” or “victims” can be unhelpful in supporting them to change behaviour or to recover from the impacts of bullying.’
    Instead the organisation recommends focusing on the impact of the behaviour and helping people to understand why it was wrong and how they can stop.
  • Professor Andrew Przybylski from Oxford University's Oxford Internet Institute believes that 'Cyberbullying is best understood as a new avenue to victimise those already being bullied in traditional ways, rather than a way to pick on new victims.'
  • In a recent report on cyberbullying from the University of Buckingham Beyond the School Gates, Dr Maša Popovac found that face-to-face bullying is still the most common form of bullying, but that offline and online bullying are often linked. The report recommends that schools have clear ICT and safety policies in place and that they teach young people positive values and netiquette (a guide to how to behave online).
  • Jean-Baptiste Pingault and Tabea Schoeler from University College London, support the idea that while cyberbullying may be rooted in traditional bullying, it needs targeted methods to combat it, that take into account the different methodology employed. Their current research is a longterm study, following people from childhood to adulthood, exploring the relationship between bullying and mental health with the hope that it’ll lead to more targeted and effective support for young people.

Further reading and information to pass on to parents:

Tackling LGBTQ bullying in schools

Bullying: A parent’s guide – what if my child is bullying another child?

How can your child deal with in-game bullying?


[1] Based on the respondents’ own definition of cyberbullying.

[2] Ofcom defined bullying as: ‘Sometimes children or teenagers can say things or do things that can be quite nasty or hurtful. This could be in person, by talking about people behind their back, calling people names, leaving them out, threatening to hurt people or physically hurting them. It could also be through nasty telephone calls or text messages, by sharing embarrassing photos or videos of someone, or by being nasty or hurtful to people through social media sites or other websites or online games. It could be done on purpose to hurt or upset someone or as a joke that goes too far.’