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Preventing bullying in schools and online: “the hardest work is yet to come”

Across Europe, the scourge of cyberbullying amongst children and young people continues to ravage families and communities. November marks a month of action in Europe and the UK to raise awareness and ramp up prevention efforts around the issue.

child hand with stop letters
child hand with stop letters

November 9, 2023France’s National Day Against School Bullying — carries a particularly heavy poignancy, with the country having lost at least four children to suicide after being bullied online and at school this year alone.

It’s a more than tragic outcome, highlighting that despite the best efforts of associations like Marion la Main Tendue (Marion, the Helping Hand) — which launched the national day of action in 2014 — much work remains to be done when it comes to protecting children from the worst elements of bullying in schools and online.

For Nora Tirane-Fraisse, who founded Marion La Main Tendue following the death of her daughter after being bullied on social media, the National Day Against School Bullying is invaluable in bringing discussion of bullying amongst children and young people into the open.

“In the 10 years since we launched the National Day Against School Bullying, we’ve changed public policy and mentalities around bullying. We’ve moved from it being seen as a sundry or miscellaneous issue, to a societal problem. We’ve moved from it being something that happens to other people, to its being understood as something that happens to us. That’s really major,” comments Tirane-Fraisse.

“Now, the hardest work is to come. We need to force institutional change.”

The French National Day Against Bullying has evolved from a symbolic day aimed at raising awareness, into a week-long campaign that aims to support children — both victims of bullying and the bullies — and amplify prevention efforts.

“Finally, we are also talking about the bullies because if we don’t, if we don’t help them, we will never win,” comments Tirane-Fraisse.

Tirane-Fraisse says that bullying amongst peers — at school, on the bus, in the canteen, online — must be addressed head-on with preventative measures. The National Day Against Bullying offers all parties a forum to speak up and confront the issue, she says.

Since Tirane-Fraisse founded Marion la Main Tendue, it has been at the heart of public debate around bullying in schools and online. It has contributed to the establishment of two national hotlines for witnesses and victims of bullying and cyberbullying, and to the development and implementation of a national program to fight bullying in schools (Phare: Programme de Lutte Contre le harcèlement à l’école). This November, every educational institution in France is obliged to dedicate at least two hours of teaching time to a discussion of the issues, their impact and what to do if one is a victim or witness to bullying.

Nora Tirane-Fraisse, founder of Marion La Main Tendue

Is social media responsible for cyberbullying?

Schoolyard bullying existed well before the arrival of the internet, as did the societal problems that are at its root. Technological tools and social media, like with so many other things, have served to amplify an existing problem. Nowadays, bullying behavior in schools continues online seemingly unabated, following students into the sanctuary of home and their private life.

In Germany, the problem of cyberbullying in schools has steadily risen over the last five years, according to association Bündnis Gegen Cybermobbing (BCG — Alliance Against Cyberbullying). A 2022 study conducted by the association found that nearly one in five (17.6%) young people in Germany had been victims of cyberbullying, up from 12.7% five years previously.

“Digital communication tools and platforms, especially smartphones and social media, have greatly increased the extent and reach of cyberbullying,” comments BGC co-founder and chairman Uwe Leest. “In my view, the smartphone has become a kind of weapon. Not only can it cause psychological damage, but in extreme cases it can even lead to suicide.”

Leest says there are many complex causes of cyberbullying, including a lack of respect in society generally, and a lack of consequences for cyberbullies.  

Assistant Professor Sara Pabian, of Tilburn University in the Netherlands, specializes in cyberbullying, online aggression, hate speech, social media influencers, and influencer marketing. Her research shows children are skeptical about the role of the platforms in preventing and stopping online bullying.

“Children find it very difficult to report something. On Instagram, for example, you have to indicate what kind of harassment you’re facing,” she comments. “They also don’t like the process; what happens after you make the report, it’s not really transparent.”

For Tirane-Fraisse, arguing that social media is to blame for cyberbullying amongst children and teens is too easy. She says that while the platforms certainly have a role to play in moderating content and providing efficient and effective tools to report abusive content and behavior, parents and institutions must also take responsibility for educating children.

“If we always say that it’s the social networks’ fault, that exonerates the idea that we as parents have a responsibility to teach and educate our children,” comments Fraisse.

“Online parental controls are good but the first parental control is the parents; we need to educate the parents so they can accompany their children. International research shows that the risks are divided by a third when the parent takes the first steps online with their children.”

Ramping up cyberbullying prevention efforts in Europe

In recent years, actions in Europe to study and prevent bullying and cyberbullying amongst young people have ramped up. This includes educating children from an early age about what constitutes online bullying, and its potential consequences — both for the victims, and the perpetrators under the law.

“We have developed comprehensive prevention programs that aim to raise awareness of cyberbullying among all parties involved, namely students, teachers and parents who form what we call the ‘social triangle’,” comments Leest.

Associations like BGC and Marion la Main Tendue offer a range of support services for victims and are active in developing prevention programs. But effectively raising the issue with children — whose online activities begin earlier and earlier — remains a major challenge.

“We know from research that not a lot of perpetrators realize how hurtful their actions are. A lot of them say they do it for fun, and don’t see how serious it is because there’s a screen between the victim and the perpetrators, so they are not directly confronted with the victims’ emotions,” comments Pabian.

Pabian says children who witness cyberbullying can play an important role in prevention. However, many do not know how to respond when they witness bullying, or are afraid to speak up for fear of antagonizing the perpetrator.

“We can encourage positive responses such as supporting the victim by sending them a private message, or by reacting in public and indicating they disagree,” she comments. “But [if they comment publicly] it’s important that they do it in a non-aggressive way to avoid a negative spiral of reactions.”

Pabian says children in the Netherlands begin their online life between age 10 and 12, and studies show that prevalence rates for cyberbullying peak from age 11 to 12.

Using Influencers to combat cyberbullying

Recently, Pabian’s research has focused on the role influencers can play in the fight against cyberbullying.  

“We know that social media influencers can influence followers to buy products and so on. This is especially true for young people. They look up to influencers and see them as a role model,” Pabian says.

As part of research dubbed the Tabasco Project, influencers were invited to speak to school children in six countries (the Netherlands, Italy, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Portugal) about their experiences with cyberbullying.

In the Netherlands, Pabian invited Dutch influencer Jayden Lans (12.2K followers on Instagram, 155K followers on TikTok) to speak to some 300 children about his experiences. During the discussion, Lans showed the children bullying messages he had received, talked about how he coped with it and shared with the children how to report the behavior and block accounts.  

“The children were really shocked. They were surprised by the fact that he receives these messages and that they are liked by so many other people. So the bystanders were reinforcing the behavior, and this was a really valuable lesson,” said Pabian.

Let’s listen to the kids!

The urgent need to listen to children and take their concerns seriously when they report bullying and antisocial behavior by their peers remains a key message of all those involved in the fight against bullying and cyberbullying.

To this end, the Tabasco Project asked children to brainstorm content ideas for influencers looking to spread positive anti-bullying messages amongst their communities.

“The children valued hearing personal experiences from influencers about being bullied. They also valued humor; if the influencer is making a TikTok, there are expectations about the entertainment value of the video,” said Pabian.

“If the influencer is going to talk about cyberbullying, they want content that is authentic and the style fits with the influencer’s normal style. With regard to disclosure about being paid to do the video, they said it would be nice if they are honest about this.”

In the future, Pabian says it will be important to test whether influencer content around cyberbullying can go further than changing attitudes to actually change behavior over the long term.

“This project gave us a lot of inspiration about how posts should look with regard to cyberbullying,” she comments. “But first we need to learn more about how we can use social media influencers for promoting healthy behaviors. We can learn a lot from other fields that could maybe be applied to cyberbullying.”

Useful links

  • Bündnis gegen Cybermobbing

  • Marion la Main Tendue

  • Using Influencers to Combat Cyberbullying

  • Unesco International Day Against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying,better%20mental%20health%20and%20learning.

  • Anti-Bullying Week, UK

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