Sticks and stones and smartphones

01 December 2017 | Story Joanne Hardman. Photo Pexels.
“What makes cyberbullying so frightening is that it can be done at any time and across any space,” says Joanne Hardman.
“What makes cyberbullying so frightening is that it can be done at any time and across any space,” says Joanne Hardman.

Technology is ubiquitous in the 21st century. Children as young as eight have access to smartphones and 18-month-olds are using iPads.

The huge rise in technology use has led to many debates, not the least of which is: Is technology good or bad for children?

There is no simple answer to this. On its own, technology is neither good nor bad. But what it is used for can have positive or negative effects.

One of the seriously negative effects that arises from the use of technology — in this case, the use of smartphones — is cyberbullying.

Before discussing cyberbullying it is important to know something about children’s development. Because schoolchildren have access to smartphones, we need to understand, developmentally, what children aged nine to 12 and 13 to 18 are going through.

In the younger age range, children are still very much concrete thinkers. Their logic is developing, but they are still not cognitively developed in terms of impulse control, for example.

What this means is that they do not check themselves before sending messages on their phones. This can lead to messages being sent that are hurtful to others, without the child intending this.

Further, children in primary school go through a number of developmental challenges; they face more work and the level of the work is more intense than they are accustomed to. They are moving away from relying on their mothers to relying more on their friends.

Peer relationships become paramount. This is a good thing; children need to form good, solid friendships. But it can also be a double-edged sword, in that the desire to fit in can lead children to give in to peer pressure.

Although it is wonderful to play with friends, it is difficult for a child or teenager if they feel they are being pressured to do something that they do not want to do. This becomes increasingly difficult as they transition into the teenage years when fitting in becomes primary in social settings.

This can lead children to post messages — or at the least not stop friends from posting messages — that are hurtful or harmful to others.

The intent of cyberbullying is to threaten, harm, humiliate and engender fear and helplessness in the victim.

From my experience of working with children from the ages of nine to 14, I know that children will find things upsetting that we, as adults, might not find particularly threatening.

For example, a chain letter sent to a WhatsApp group might seem harmless to an adult, but not to a child. In fact, such a letter is experienced as intrusive and extremely frightening.

What makes cyberbullying so frightening is that it can be done at any time and across any space.

In the past, if a child was being bullied face to face at a school, parents would often simply move that child to a new environment. This is not possible with cyberbullying, because the smartphone can get hold of children anywhere.

This is bullying on steroids. Some statistics suggest that up to 50% of children are bullied in this manner, with girls being bullied more than boys.

The gender difference in cyberbullying in schools can be traced to the nature of bonds that girls tend to make.

Girls form tight-knit cliques, but boys are less inclined to do so. Being excluded from a clique, of course, can damage a girl’s development.

The reason we are not entirely sure about the statistics of cyberbullying and bullying in general is that children tend not to report that they are being bullied. In fact, only one in three are likely to report being cyberbullied.

Extremely troubling is the increased finding that cyberbullying is leading to increased depression and anxiety in children and, in some well-publicised cases, suicide when a child is no longer able to cope with the bullying.

Clearly, as teachers and parents, we need to take cognisance of this growing trend and act to support our children by teaching them how to deal with this.

The first thing one needs to do is look for signs that cyberbullying is happening. These could be an unexpected drop in grades, a child withdrawing from social activities they enjoyed, unexpected rejection of school and secretive behaviour when using the phone.

If you suspect children are being bullied, the first thing to do is to try to get them to talk about it. They may not want to talk to their parents, so perhaps encourage them to talk to a trusted teacher. Teachers are parents’ allies in schooling and, as a parent, you need to be in regular contact with your children’s teachers.

It is important to set ground rules for cellphone use and to explain to your children that you will monitor their phone. Privacy is obviously important for children who are developing, but it is not more important than their safety.

Explain to your children that posting pictures or text means it is out of their hands and can potentially land up in anyone else’s phone — even someone they do not know. Deleting a picture or a message once it is sent will not stop this.

Although it may be cool to have many Instagram followers, it is important to tell children that they must not accept requests from people they do not know and must never — under any circumstances — give their phone number and address to anyone they do not know well.

In the 21st century, technology has become ubiquitous. We cannot get away from it. But, with the rise of cyberbullying, the onus is on parents and teachers to teach children how to protect themselves from the harmful effects that some messages may have.

Joanne Hardman is associate professor in the school of education at the University of Cape Town.

This story was originally published in the Mail & Guardian.

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