Are you a Bystander, or an Upstander?

Cyberbullying; “deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through the use of online technology”, is now the second most common form of bullying in Australia.

In Australian schools, the problem is endemic. Approximately 20% of school students reported experiencing online bullying in any one year. Furthermore, more than 80% of students who were bullied online reported being bullied in person. Pertinent to note that these statistics are based on the known instances of Cyberbullying. Children typically under-report instances of bullying and cyberbullying. The actual figures are certainly and indubitably higher.

Bullying has the potency to ill-affect every part of a young person’s life, including relationships with friends and family. It can affect a person’s confidence and performance at school, at home, in sport and in other activities. Young people who are bullied are also more susceptible to develop anxiety and depression.

Bullying traditionally had obvious visible signs. Shouting, beatings, bruises, witnesses etc. Cyber bullying does not come bundled with the overt and the obvious signs. Most of the behaviour takes place behind a digital screen. It consequents into emotional harm and widespread notoriety owing to the nature of social media.

The ‘usual suspects’ who perpetrate ‘in-person’ bullying may (or not) be responsible for cyber bullying. A wider and different range of personalities are drawn into online misbehaviour. Since it is not as public an attack as is in the physical world, cyber bullying offers a kind of protection to the perpetrator – even anonymity.

Identifying cyberbullying attacks or online harassment directed towards children in schools is difficult to detect and as such, harder to combat. It is often lumped in the ‘not easy to assess’ and as such in the ‘too hard’ basket. Resultantly, educators and school administration can sometimes be guilty of neglecting Cyberbullying or bypassing the issue.

Several schools in Australia have taken the bold step to ban mobile phone use in school hours. On the surface, this appears to tackle the issue head-on: young people are bullying others or coming to harm, while accessing apps and websites from their mobile phones. Surely, banning the phones removes the issue.

When we consider the problem more deeply, we can see that banning phones simply shifts the problem out of sight. Do our students still go online? And do they do so multiple times a day? Probably. Are they likely to hide their phones and conceal their use? Quite likely. And does the bullying issue disappear? Definitely not.

In fact, a move such as banning phones can potentially increase the risk of harm to children. With phones banned from school, should a child experience online bullying, they will almost certainly not report it as they are bypassing school policy by simply using a phone on school grounds. This is what a focus on ‘policing’ does: it creates more offenders, and reduces the chance of schools to have a positive impact.

So, how should schools react to the increased issue of online bullying?

Research shows that the largest and most powerful group in a bullying situation is the bystander, yet 70% of Australians do nothing to help when they observe bullying.

Two things need to happen for this to change:

  1. Schools must remain aware of cyber bullying being perpetrated by or on their students;
  2. Bystanders need to transition, to becoming “Upstanders”.

In a day and age of advanced technology, such as next-generation firewalls and advanced web filtering and reporting tools, there is no excuse for schools to remain unaware of online bullying.

Our own product, Saasyan Assure, allows pastoral care and other School staff to be proactively notified when certain keywords are used by children or certain behaviours are detected online.

Detection combined with action is an excellent recipe for saving lives. For example, children who have searched keywords related to suicide and self-harm would have gone undetected without the proactive reporting in Assure – and they would have gone unhelped without the response of an ‘Upstanding’ educator.

And who can be an Upstander? Parents, teachers, pastoral care staff, school administration, leadership and even other students. Many young people these days are standing up and publicly saying ‘no’ to online bullying, calling themselves out on social media as a ‘positive influencer’. Building a culture where this attitude is the norm sustainably prevents online bullying. Education and encouragement around good ‘digital citizenship’ goes a long way to sorting cyberbullying proactively, rather than reactively.

And do Upstanders need to do anything extraordinary? Do they need to front up to bullies? Do they need to come up with solutions and mediation? Not necessarily.

The key objective of an Upstander is to help students report bullying. When a child is bullied and they confide in a friend, or turn to an adult for help, all they want is for the bullying to stop. They are usually not seeking retaliation or revenge: they often don’t even want the person doing the bullying to get in trouble. They simply want the bullying to end. Parents, educators, and other adults tasked with responding to bullying incidents need to keep this in mind, and respond in a way that stops the bullying.

The biggest issue in combating online bullying is turning Bystanders into Upstanders. Technology is not the problem: apathy is the roadblock.

Become an Upstander, intervene when you have the opportunity, and save lives.