Cyberbullying weighs heavily on young people

Pink Shirt Day on Wednesday

With Pink Shirt Day coming to schools on Wednesday (Feb. 28), the topic of cyberbullying is more timely than ever.

Cyberbullying is a type of bullying that is done through technology such as a phone or a computer, instead of face-to-face.

Bonnie Leadbeater, a psychology professor at the University of Victoria and a developer of a program called WITS (Walk away, Ignore, Talk it out, and Seek help), which is designed for the prevention of bullying and victimization in elementary and middle school aged children, says cyberbullying is typically done through direct messaging or social media.

“It’s not hard to catch a cyberbully because they have left a record that leads back to them. But with cyberbullying, typically victims tend to be more secretive about it and not want to tell anyone,” Leadbeater said. “A lot of what we do is just try to get these kids to come forward if they are bullied.”

She said cyberbullying can be more harmful because you can’t walk away from it, so it’s harder to escape, and it can have serious effects on someone’s mental health.

Dan Taft, a counsellor at Belmont Secondary School, agreed saying: “Social media now allows people to say things, spread gossip, or send pictures and videos very quickly to a large number of people, so it’s important children learn how to use social media in an appropriate and positive way, as well as for kids to learn how to protect themselves from people who aren’t using it appropriately.”

Leadbeater said approximately 15 per cent of children in Canada are chronically bullied, or more than twice a month, and she attributes this to how competitive our society is, where everyone looks to achieve a certain status.

“Although I think Canada is moving in a friendlier direction, we are not a society that emphasizes to treat everybody equally and be kind to everyone,” she said.

Taft added that a lot of the humour kids see in the media is often based on putting people down.

“It’s difficult when kids see that all the time in shows and online, to learn that that kind of humour can actually be pretty negative and hurtful,” Taft said. “So that’s why we try to build a culture in our schools that’s really accepting and non-judgmental.”

RELATED: Cyberbullying a serious matter in Sooke

Leadbeater said cyberbullying can start as early as Grade 5, but kids that age might not necessarily realize how they are coming across while just trying to be funny, or that what they are saying can hurt someone’s feelings.

“It’s important that children learn early on what it means to talk to someone that isn’t right in front of them, and how someone might interpret their words when they can’t see facial expressions to know if they’re kidding or not,” Leadbeater said.

But in middle and high school aged kids, she explained that the bullying tends to be a lot more intentional.

“Relational bullying has always been a problem, but cyberbullying is just an extension of that. It gives people a new tool to bully, because you don’t have to be in front of the person to tease them.”

Leadbeater said if a person is being cyber-bullied, the best thing to do is stop the interaction, save the messages, and show it to an adult.

“Parents should encourage children to show them what’s on their devices, what they are posting and keep it quite public. It shouldn’t be such a private way of talking right away,” she said.

“This can help parents give advice on how to interact in a positive way online, and hopefully help kids to better negotiate that world when using technology.”

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