Psychologists at educational institutions say children’s mental health can suffer if they are victims of online tormentors – but there are measures ready to deal with them.
Bullying in schools around the world, and how to combat it, has become a focus of attention for professionals and experts – and that attention remains even at a time when COVID-19 has forced the closure of school buildings.
While students may experience many different types of bullying, from the physical to the verbal and emotional, one area that poses a particular challenge is cyberbullying. Because it takes place in an online environment rather than face-to-face, it is harder to pinpoint and deal with.
As Heather Lee, Psychologist at The Learning Center (TLC) – a specialized center for supporting children with mild to moderate learning needs across QF schools, and part of Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University Education – says: “In general, we can describe bullying as intentional behavior that hurts or humiliates a student either physically or emotionally, and that can happen while at school, in the community, or online”.
Cyberbullying has the potential to have a significant impact on students mental health, as it is often more secretive, unwitnessed, and underreported.
“With bullying, there is often a power imbalance between those involved. Students who bully may perceive their target as vulnerable, and often find satisfaction in harming them. Cyberbullying has the potential to have a significant impact on students mental health, as it is often more secretive, unwitnessed, and underreported.
“It is the use of technology to intentionally and repeatedly hurt others through online platforms. For example, someone might post inappropriate comments or rumors about someone on a site such as Instagram or Facebook, set up a fake profile for them, send offensive or threatening messages.
“The challenge with cyberbullying is that it is persistent; it can happen during all hours of the day. A bully can hide their identity. And, worst of all, they have access to a larger audience.
According to Lee, children who are bullied can experience negative physical, and mental health issues. “They are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, have increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, and suffer from changes in sleep and eating patterns,” she says. “Also, they may often display decreased academic achievement.”
With educational institutions adopting methods of e-learning due to COVID-19), there have been concerns that the risk and rate of cyberbullying would increase. However, Jody R. Roberson, Psychologist at The Learning Center, has an alternative view.
“There appears to have been a decrease in cyberbullying in Qatar Foundation schools” he said. “One reason could be that parents and siblings are at home more, and are able to monitor technology usage more closely, with children spending more time with their family”.
What we are also seeing among older students is that there is now more of a sense of them needing to give support to their peers and maintain healthy online connections with friends.
“Another possible explanation is because during this time of high stress due to the global pandemic, people are more likely to focus on their basic needs being met; they do not have the time or energy to invest in other less important things, such as in bullying. What we are also seeing among older students is that there is now more of a sense of them needing to give support to their peers and maintain healthy online connections with friends”.
Lee and Roberson say that some research indicates that instances of cyberbullying in Qatar could be considered as moderate when compared to worldwide figures. And if it does occur within QF schools, there are measures in place to tackle it.
“Many of the cases we have experienced are related to students being bullied due to ethnicity or cultural differences,” says Lee. “Physical appearance also seems to be a persistent factor in students being targets for bullying.
“I have also observed students with learning disabilities being targeted by bullies. Often, they don’t realize they are targets, don’t understand the bullying, or don’t have the capacity to stand up for themselves.”
QF schools focus on proactive and preventative strategies to deal with bullying. They all have counselors and psychologists, who are continuing to offer support to students online even during the current period of remote learning.
“In QF schools, any instance of bullying is addressed based on each individual school's anti-bullying policies,” said Roberson. “Children often report it to their parents, who then come to us, and it is immediately investigated by the school. With older students, they often share their experiences of bullying with the counselor or a close friend.
As mental health professionals, we teach students strategies such as knowing how to respond to bullying, how to block or ignore and report cyberbullying, and how to support friends who have been victims of bullying.
“As mental health professionals, we teach students strategies such as knowing how to respond to bullying, how to block or ignore and report cyberbullying, and how to support friends who have been victims of bullying, etc. We also help students to build their self-confidence so that they can overcome bullying in a healthy way.”
Lee highlighted that some QF schools also have Wellness Ambassadors; specially trained students who promote good mental health and raise awareness of issues in this area to their peers, through online platforms, school assemblies, and campaigns.
“Many schools also have anti-bullying awareness days, as well as including lessons about cultural diversity and acceptance of others, and we have ‘Bully Blockers’ at some schools - students who monitor and report instances of bullying” she added.
The role of parents
The QF psychologists point out that parents can look for indications that their child is a victim of cyberbullying, including using their phone less than before, becoming withdrawn, a drop in grades and confidence, changes in friends, and a secrecy about their use of electronic equipment.
They advise parents to talk to their children about cyberbullying, spend more family time together, help them build their confidence and encourage them to develop their talents, as well as monitoring their use of devices and making sure they know their passwords.
If parents find out their child has been cyberbullied, Lee and Roberson recommend that they reassure the child that speaking about it is doing the right thing; explain that they should not respond to any of the bullying as it might make things worse; teach them to block, ignore, and report bullying messages on social media platforms; make a record of the bullying and gather evidence; remove the bully from friend lists; and set their child’s social network profiles to private. If the bullying is severe, and the perpetrator is unknown or is not a student at their child’s school, they may need to report the matter to the police.
“If the parents are unsure of what to do, or how to speak to their child, the school counselors or psychologists are great resources and are always there to help support and guide parents as well as students” Lee added.