What the experts say about cyberbullying

Professor Donna Cross

At a glance

  • Kids are more likely to refer to cyberbullying as texting, flaming, happy slapping, etc.
  • Kids who may never bully face to face will do it online because it's hidden.
  • Even the kindest, most passive child can inadvertently contribute to cyberbullying by forwarding on a humiliating, abusive or confidential message.
  • Spend time in your child's online world to understand it.
  • Kids won't tell an adult about cyberbullying if they fear the result will be having their phone or internet access taken away.

While research into cyberbullying is still in its infancy, the one thing we do know is the online environment is really just a new setting for age-old issues.           

Cyberbullying is an extension of face-to-face bullying. It's all about relationships. So far, there haven't been any Australian research findings released about effective solutions to cyberbullying – but it's being studied. Professor Donna Cross from Edith Cowan University in Perth is looking at effective strategies for parents and schools.

Donna has also been heavily involved in much of the research we have to date.

How common is online bullying?

  • It's difficult to know exactly how many kids are cyberbullied because they're less likely to report it, and it's usually not something parents and teachers can see (it's covert or hidden).
  • Kids are also more likely to talk about cyberbullying as specific behaviours such as texting, flaming, happy slapping.
  • About 10 per cent of kids report they are being cyberbullied, and that increases proportionately with age (and access to mobile phones and social media sites).
  • Each day in Australia 100,000 children report they are bullied at lunchtime or recess. (That's enough kids to fill the Melbourne Cricket Ground). While that number includes all kinds of bullying, we also know that 80 per cent of the children who are cyberbullied are also face-to-face bullied.

When are kids most vulnerable to bullying?

  • Bullying – online or offline – peaks for kids (and this is worldwide) at about Year 5, and again at about Year 7 or 8.
  • The first peak coincides with children discovering the power of the peer group, and creating their own social pecking order.
  • The second peak occurs when children move from primary school to secondary school. In NSW it's in Year 7. In WA, where high school begins a year later, it's in Year 8.
  • This later peak is all about social groups being mucked up. The social hierarchies that were well established are now all in disarray as new kids are thrown together in a new school. Every time you change the group, you increase the likelihood of bullying.

Who cyberbullies?


Even the kindest, most passive child can inadvertently contribute to cyberbullying by forwarding on a humiliating, abusive or confidential message.
  • Although technology doesn't cause bullying, it changes the nature of it. Kids who may never bully face to face will do it online because it's hidden, can be anonymous and they don't get feedback from the victim or peers of the harm they are causing.
  • It's also easier for misunderstandings to occur – and become inflamed – when using the written word. Again, there are none of the traditional cues we use with our face and voice to convey humour or sadness, etc.
  • The speed of online communication can contribute to bullying. Kids respond immediately without taking time to think through the consequences, or potential problems. (Who hasn't sent an email in a hurry and realised it's full of errors?)
  • We also don't have good definitions of cyberbullying yet. Some experts say it needs to be intentional, repeated and between two people with different levels of power. Some parents would argue that one incident between kids the same age is also cyberbullying.
  • Even the kindest, most passive child can inadvertently contribute to cyberbullying by forwarding on a humiliating, abusive or confidential message.

What parents can do to stop cyberbullying


The first peak coincides with children discovering the power of the peer group, and creating their own social pecking order.
  • Understand where your kids are going online, what they are doing, and who they are talking to – this is absolutely vital.
  • Spend time in your child's online world. You can't understand it otherwise.
  • Accept and acknowledge how important technology is to your child.
  • Don't ask your child if they're being cyberbullied. Use their language – have they seen mean texts circulating, humiliating photos or messages on others' Facebook walls?
  • Don't downplay covert bullying. Parents and teachers can sometimes say things like "don't worry … it doesn't matter if you've been left out", or "just ignore the bullying". This tells the child that you don't take their situation seriously, and can even convey the message it's OK and normal for others to treat them this way.
  • Kids won't tell an adult about cyberbullying if they fear the result will be removal of the phone or internet access. Discuss this with your child and reassure them that's not how you'll deal with it.
  • Teach your kids how to be good cyber citizens (careful, private, empathetic) before they reach Year 4 (by about nine years old, or when they may begin to venture online).
  • Much of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying is learned behaviour. Look at what behaviours you're modelling to your kids. Is sarcasm and point-scoring part of your family culture? It's often how you say something that matters.
  • Don't contact the other child, but do tell the school principal.
  • Don't immediately assume your child is being victimised and the other child is just a bully. Miscommunications get out of hand quickly and often both parties feel hurt.

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