Save the Children Spain, in its report called Violencia Viral [Viral Violence], presents the available data on cyberbullying and other types of violence online.
Despite a widespread understanding to the contrary, online interactions are undoubtedly akin to any other interaction, at least in the sense that they can affect our lives positively or negatively. Parents and guardians tend to explain to their children how to react and feel about the harassment they are experiencing or may experience in the “real world,” however, sometimes out of sheer lack of knowledge they cannot do the same with regard to online communications.
The numbers speak for themselves: according to the Save the Children report, 75% of young people surveyed were the victims of some kind of online harassment in their childhoods. Cyberbullying and inadvertent exposure to sexual or violent content are two common types of online harassment.
Cyberbullying consists of harassing the child and is frequently an extension of offline bullying. This kind of bullying is known to cause great suffering and its victims have even turned to suicide as what they feel to be the only way to escape. Cyberbullying adds a very important factor to the essentially destructive nature of traditional bullying: it is inescapable. Children and adolescents in our society communicate fluently and normally online.
According to the report, 94% of children between 10 and 15 use the Internet. Using everything from social media to messengers, they are always connected. Despite it very frequently creating problems between children and their parents, who are simply not used to communicating so intensely and continuously via social media as their children due to the generational gap, this is not necessarily a bad thing. The Internet is nothing more than a tool and, as such, it’s appropriateness depends on the individual’s use of it. Adolescents frequently find people with very similar tastes and concerns with hitherto unheard-of speed, while we previously simply had to settle for the people around us due to proximity.
Nevertheless, this connection can become poisonous when bullying turns into cyberbullying: with all dramatic and particularly heinous school bullying cases there are (or were) solutions that, although expeditious and not necessarily recommended in all cases, could solve the problem with the stroke of a pen, such as changing schools.
There is no such option when it comes to cyberbullying. Children can change schools or even cities and the bullying will remain as virulent as ever. The main line of communication with their friends and, more importantly, their preferred means of leisure, become the means by which this bullying follows them home.
Another type of online harassment that children and adolescents commonly face is inadvertent exposure to sexual and violent content. Download pages, which are frequently used to watch content that is normally paid content, tend to have a lot of advertising banners for sex-related pages containing very graphic content. They sometimes directly open windows to their sites instead of closing on the first click. Regardless of whether or not the child is searching for sexual content, said content is presented directly to them very easily. Although there is nothing wrong with children and adolescents receiving accurate and complete information about sex and pleasure, pornography (which is what they will find) is at odds with that as it perpetuates not only erroneous patterns regarding the nature of sex and what satisfactory sexual relationships look like, but it also models aggressive and violent sexual behaviors that are almost always based on the abasement and objectification of women. The “snowball effect” that this may have goes beyond children feeling embarrassed or confused by seeing graphic sexual images on the screen; if the child or adolescent learns about sex from pornography, it is as if they learned about architecture by watching videos of bombings.
There is something interesting to note: far from being a “kids’ stuff,” according to the report, it appears that the perpetrators of online harassment have a particular profile: 77% of people arrested or investigated for online harassment are men. Additionally, 71.16% of the perpetrators are over 26. This paints a disconcerting picture in which young people and children are victims of harassment carried out by adults who, often (as is the case with child grooming and sexting without consent) seek sexual gratification out of their interactions with these children. This is not a rarity; the gradual sexualization of children in clothing shops (Halloween costumes, bikinis, underwear, etc.) and advertising show how this violence is part of the larger problem where rape culture and traditional gender roles play very important roles.
Based on the data, the report considers that girls and young women are much more vulnerable to online harassment just as they are, broadening the horizon, to almost all other types of harassment and violence.
We cannot forget that LGTBIQA children and adolescents are especially vulnerable to bullying, a fact that is a factor in children in this group being three to five times more likely to die by suicide than the cis hetero population, according to the Spanish Observatory against LGBTphobia. Awareness raising campaigns in elementary, middle, and high schools as well as other institutions are key to teaching students to be empathetic and respect diversity. Everyone involved in teaching, from professors to government agencies must work on this and clearly and resoundingly fight against any initiative aiming to eliminate student education on these matters, regardless of its origin.
This report ends with urgent recommendations with regard to laws that should already be in force and with recommendations based on open family dialog to create a climate where the potential victim won’t have a hard time sharing any difficulties they are facing. They also recommend empowerment in childhood, through digital citizenship and emotional/sexual education. Perhaps as a psychologist these are the things I view as most important: teaching empathy, to be understanding, to put oneself in someone else’s shoes, to understand the hurt caused by bullying, which can be very serious and have lifelong consequences. But all of this depends, and will always depend, on the willingness of governmental institutions to commit to this fight beyond making generalized, empty statements of niceties.
All members of the educational community need to keep an eye out to prevent and address all types of harassment and bullying (online and offline) going on between and aimed at our students and we must be trained to do so. Above all, we must be educated in empathy and conflict resolution. This is not “kids’ stuff,” this is not “just a couple of jokes they send around,” we cannot pretend “it’s just a phase.” We need to act. Now.
Ricardo de Pascual
Professor of Psychology Universidad Europea