Cyberbullying has become a significant issue for young people learning to navigate a life that is increasingly online. Like bullying that occurs face-to-face, cyberbullying can have serious effects on the physical and mental health of victims.
Cyberbullying in isolation is very uncommon. Of young people who report being bullied, a clear majority have said it occurred face-to-face (71.5%). Over a quarter experienced bullying face-to-face and online (27.4%), and a very small percentage experienced cyberbullying only (1.1%).
It's important we don't focus on cyberbullying alone, and instead address the fundamentals of bullying more widely. Essential to tackling this complex issue is understanding which kids bully and why they do it.
Which kids bully?
All kids are capable of bullying. A study over seven years showed a majority of kids bully others at some point during their time at school. Many stop as they grow older, but just as many continue. Those who consistently bully their peers over the long-term are learning to use their power to control and harm others. This pattern of behaviour can continue into adulthood.
To complicate things further, it's common for those who perpetrate bullying to also be victims of bullying. Our research suggests this is the case for at least 50% of young people who perpetrate bullying. Young people who are victimised and perpetrate bullying are at the greatest risk of mental health problems.
Why do kids bully?
Bullying can be a successful way to achieve high social status or peer acceptance. It's most effective for achieving social dominance when used in combination with "pro-social" behaviour such as helping, sharing, and cooperating with others.
A young person's pro-social behaviour helps to reconcile their bullying behaviour once their dominance is established. This group of individuals are socially skilled and generally have high levels of popularity among their peers.
There is also a second group of individuals who perpetrate bullying, but they are less successful in raising their social status. Their aggressive behaviour towards their peers is often impulsive and over-reactive, and they tend to report being victims of bullying themselves. These are the individuals who are most likely to have behavioural and mental health problems.
Kids who bully their peers are not all the same. These two groups need different responses by parents and teachers in order to address the bullying behaviour. The first group need to be redirected to achieve their desired social status among their peers using only pro-social behaviour. The second group needs support to help them establish and maintain positive relationships with their peers.
What can parents do?
Digital technology is now a central part of most young peoples' lives. Parents need to show patience and curiosity about their child's online behaviour.
Parents must be clear that bullying is always unacceptable. But, they should also try to see the situation through their child's eyes, as young people may not have the maturity to fully consider the consequences of their actions.
Children will often try to justify their behaviour, so a parent's role is to help them develop empathy for others.
This requires ongoing discussions and encouraging the child to reflect on how their behaviour makes others feel. It is unhelpful for the child to be shamed or to ban access to the technology. This kind of response prevents the child from opportunities to learn responsible online behaviour.
But, parents must take charge in setting the conditions of using technology. This includes monitoring its use until a time when the young person shows they can manage their online behaviour responsibly.
If the behaviour continues, then it may be necessary to involve health professionals and the child's school. It's better for parents to be proactive in taking steps to manage the behaviour rather than waiting for other systems to step in (education or police).
Online interactions are complex. Young people need parents to support them in making good choices about how they conduct themselves online. Strengthening parents' skills in effectively managing issues of cyberbullying is an important part of the solution.