As elementary and secondary schools prepare for the return of students in September, most parents, teachers, and children may be understandably preoccupied with adaptations to COVID-19 health precautions and related changes.
However, there’s something else that SFU education professor Wanda Cassidy is “quite worried about”.
With stressed-out parents, overwhelmed teachers, and anxious students, Cassidy said by phone that she’s concerned that attention to cyberbullying may “fall between the cracks”. While she knows cyberbullying will happen—whether students receive education in class or online—she fears the pandemic may compound stressors and that the issue may fly under the radar.
“Society as a whole is on edge, and that’s going to filter down to kids,” she said in an interview with the Georgia Straight.
Cyberbulling is one of her three main areas of study. It usually starts, she explained, in adolescence “when young people are trying to position themselves in a group” and are experiencing heightened insecurity (the pandemic may add to that). Research reveals, she said, about one-third of students participate in or are victims of cyberbullying, which she said is a "huge" portion of the population.
Contrary to stereotypes of outsiders or weak individuals being picked on, she said that anyone can be a bully or victim, including those who are popular or academically successful.
In addition, she said that international research has shown that females participate more often in relational aggression or cyberbullying—which she said is about power, control, and social positions within friendship groups—than males, who tend to bully more physically or in person.
For instance, she said if one girl aspires to be a group’s lead figure, “she has to mobilize the other students in that group to target one or two of those members”, such as excluding the target from online exchanges or posting something unflattering about the victim on social media.
However, she added that bullies “don’t come out unscathed” as they may feel bad about themselves after hurting someone—or roles could even reverse if a victim retaliates.
UBC psychology professor Amori Mikami, who researches peer relationships, explained by phone that, contrary to views that online interactions are a “shallow or poor substitute for face-to-face” presence, she said that with tech-savvy teens, “there is a lot that can happen in the online world that is extremely meaningful and consequently can either be very fulfilling or—on the downside with things like cyberbullying—extremely hurtful”.
In fact, she said she thinks cyberbullying can be more hurtful than in-person bullying because “it’s on display for this wide audience instantly”.
What happens online tends to mirror what happens in real life, as Mikami explained that there are a “shocking number of similarities between a person’s online and offline interactions”.
Although interacting with the same social circle in person and online can be fine for those with positive relationships, she said cyberbullying victims may experience a “double whammy”, with attacks occurring both online and offline.
While she suspects that those with strong relationships are finding social fulfillment during the pandemic online and other means to interact with peers, teachers, and parents—which can help them keep what happens online in perspective—youth who don’t have those connections may be having a “tough and lonely time”.
In addition, she pointed out that a lot of acquaintance-type relationships—other people at school who a student doesn't know well enough to meet up with or aren't connected to on social media, but still obtains some social value from interacting with—tend to be lost during pandemic restrictions, isolation, or home-schooling.
Nonetheless, some youth can also find peer relationships in chatrooms or online video games. Mikami said that studies her lab conducted about alternate reality video games found that friendships between players “can have positive contributions to players’ mood and well-being”. She also added that it's beneficial for students to reach out and contact those who they may not have normally initiated interactions with before the pandemic.
Positive peer relationships also play a particularly imporant role in addressing aggression between youth.
Because cyberbullying is a relational issue, Cassidy explained that if peers say it’s unacceptable, youth are more likely to listen to them than an adult, in order to maintain friendships or else risk losing influence, power, and prestige.
“Empowering bystanders seems to be one of the most effective ways to curtail bullying and cyberbulling,” she said.
Cassidy also recommend parents should watch for signs of worry, anxiety, depression, isolation, or changes in behaviour, and to keep lines of communication open with their children. She added that punishment models don't work as they don't take into consideration the reasons why something is taking place and what exactly is going on. And she also advised schools to avoid following generic programs against bullying, which she said don’t work because they don’t address specific issues at each school based on different population, economic, or geographic factors.
“The adult who’s perhaps intervening in some way to solve something that’s happening…has to look beyond the surface and look a little bit deeper and ask a lot of questions,” she said.
Although adults—from parents to teachers, staff, and administrators—may have a ton of other concerns on their minds at the moment, both Cassidy and Mikami said that what can also help to reduce cyberbullying are considerations about the community that is being created within schools. In fact, a 2014 UBC study revealed that schools with antihomophobia initiatives, including gay-straight alliances, in place had an overall effect on student wellbeing, including lower levels of bullying, discrimination, and suicide amongst students.
For Mikami, it’s the everyday interactions that principals and teachers have with each other and students—creating a model to follow, cultivating a “climate of inclusivity and respect”, and showing that “they genuinely care about students”.
Mikami said she thinks these exchanges can be “very powerful” and, after having attended numerous schools while growing up in California, she said Lower Mainland teachers are very skilled in this area and has been "very impressed" by the forward thinking of the Vancouver School District, which she deems “very advanced in social and emotional learning”.
For Cassidy, she said ongoing discussions, such as about whether students feel a sense of belonging or what to do when feelings are hurt, are important to have to ensure that students feel their voices are heard and to include them as part of decision-making and leadership processes.
And one other thing that Cassidy also recommends to counter cyberbullying can be expressed by paraphrasing a pandemic catchphrase of a certain provincial health officer: “Be cyberkind, be calm, be safe”.