Addressing the scourge of cyberbullying


Paul Esterhuizen | CEO | School-Days | mail me |

Bullying is a pervasive risk to children, resulting in long-lasting emotional and psychological harm. In addition to physical and verbal bullying, a particularly concerning trend is the increased incidences of cyberbullying, also known as social media bullying.

A survey conducted in 2021 amongst 200 South African parents found that more than half of their children had been cyberbullied. A study by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) revealed that children are more prone to cyberbullying than adults.

What is cyberbullying?

Defined as the use of electronic communication by one party to harass, threaten, intimidate, humiliate, and stalk the other, cyberbullying can result in depression, anger, frustration, anxiety, and fear. It can also lead to delinquency, violence, and suicidal thoughts.

Bullying is defined as an intentional wrongful act (whether a physical act in verbal or written form or even a gesture), performed by either an individual or group of persons and which directly infringes an individual’s constitutional rights to equality and dignity. It is also often repeated, and not a one-off.

In South Africa, there are five pieces of legislation aimed at protecting children, including protecting them from physical and online child-associated violence and bullying. However, despite all this legislation in place, bullying remains rampant.

Legislative changes

In 2023, the Department of Basic Education announced its intention to make legislative changes that allow for children who are the victims of bullying to apply for protection orders against their bullies with the latter facing possible jail time or correctional service programmes.

But as legal experts have pointed out, while the intent of this legislative change cannot be doubted, in reality, it will be hard to implement them. Firstly, prosecutors will need to be able to prove that the accused bully has the mental capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong.

Children under the age of 10 are not perceived to have criminal capacity under South African law and therefore can’t be held criminally liable. In the case of accused children over the age of 10, stakeholders will need to be sure that it is in the best interests of both the victim and the bully to be exposed to South Africa’s criminal justice system.

According to LegalWise, although a bully over the age of 10 can be arrested, this would be a last resort. Typically, once the parents or legal guardian of a victim have brought a criminal charge against a bully over the age of 10, the bully will be summonsed to a preliminary hearing and a probation officer will be appointed to assess the bully. A preliminary enquiry will be held at a magistrate’s court to decide on appropriate measures to be taken. These measures usually include referring the bully to a rehabilitation programme or referring the case to a Child Justice Court to continue with the criminal charges against the bully.

In response to the increase in cyberbullying, the Western Cape Education Department launched an education awareness campaign about cyberbullying in 2022. The campaign, which was initiated in memory of a grade 10 learner who committed suicide after being a victim of cyberbullying, warned learners of the harm that can be caused when social media users like, share, or comment on a harmful post and how to be responsible when receiving a harmful post.

A recipe for a perfect storm

Children have only around 2,600 school days in their entire school career to learn and understand the curriculum. That’s not a great deal of time to cover what needs to be covered. No child can afford to lose learning time as a result of bullying.

Parents are under more pressure than ever before as a result of the increased cost of living, including escalating school fees – while teachers are struggling with increased class sizes. It’s a recipe for a perfect storm which is why it’s so important that all stakeholders – parents, teachers, guidance counselors, and community members – do everything in their power to encourage a kinder and more empathetic approach so that we can start to eradicate bullying in our schools and in our society. Reducing the number of learners in classrooms is a step in the right direction to thwart bullying.

The biggest problem is that children on social media are getting younger and younger, while the content they are exposed to is getting harder to control. It’s estimated that a third of children aged seven to nine, and half of tweens aged 10 to 12 use social media, despite the 13+ age restrictions on most social media platforms.

A lack of relatable guidance when it comes to children and social media is costing children dearly in terms of mental health and is increasing their cyber risk. The digital landscape is driven by money and influence and people will do a lot for a follow or a comment. Many social media users are not mature enough to discern influence, fake news or clickbait.

– Dean McCoubrey, Founder of MySocialLife

An invisible tormenter

Several studies conducted in recent years revealed that South Africa is rated in the top five globally for cyberbullying. The behaviour is peaking at the age of 13, 14, and 15. Driving the increase in bullying are power dynamics, fear, insecurity, anxiety or personal exposure to aggressive and dominant behaviours that result in harassment and the invisible erosion of self-esteem.

Cyberbullying is an invisible tormenter, hiding behind screens and evading parents and teachers. Even friends can miss the signs. Low self-esteem can make children assume they deserve to be bullied or inhibit their ability to recognise it. Tweens and teens also fear retaliation and worry that speaking up will only make things worse.

It’s important to understand the root causes of bullying and in the case of cyberbullying, it’s not so much the devices that are to blame but rather invisible family trauma, and deep-seated anxiety and anger that exists within our society which has been aggravated by socio-economic challenges and a surge of ever younger online users.

In conclusion

Education needs to address critical life skills like empathy but in a relatable way, and help children to understand feelings and how to process them.

The best way to address bullying is showing learners the long-term wins of being sharper than the rest online, how to communicate in conflict, how to manage cyberbullying, and how to self-regulate.

Every school day in a learner’s life needs to be impactful and positive. The more tools we can provide our children with to ensure happy and emotionally healthy educational journeys, the better.

Paul Esterhuizen | CEO | School-Days | mail me |



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