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taking a stand against cyberbullying

by Maree Faulkner
01 December 2009
How can young people respond to bullying? Maree Faulkner explores notions of ethical responsibility and action and asks how we can teach our kids to take a stand.

Determining an ethical stance must be difficult for young people in a society where ‘making fun’ of other people could be seen as a national pastime. The repeated images of sporting ‘heroes’ and politicians haranguing each other, erstwhile team-mates ganging up to ‘vote each other off the island’ and canned laughter responding when a camera captures a person (often a child) being humiliated or hurt must cloud the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

Bullying – intentional and repetitive action to cause another person humiliation or harm – is an age-old phenomenon. Further as Professor Donna Cross (renowned for her research into bullying) has noted, some adults believe that bullying is a natural passage of youth, that it makes kids tougher and that they’ll be better adults if they’re bullied.

This is not an attitude shared by the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect (NAPCAN) or the vast majority of adults who are concerned for the wellbeing and safety of children. Rather, in the words of the Kandersteg Declaration1, we believe that:

"Every child and youth has the right to be respected and safe. Bullying is a violation of this basic human right."

Prevention of bullying is now facing a new challenge – the availability and popularity of digital communication. Rather than seeing the challenges, young people see the new and emerging communication technology as a vital part of their social life and the building of their identity. Even back in the dark ages of 2007 (before widespread use of iPhones), the Australian Communications and Media Authority found that mobile phones had become central to young people’s social lives. Today over 90% of children and teenagers regularly use the internet. A recent study by McCrindle Research (Hale, 2009) concluded that owning a mobile phone and joining online social networking sites have become the modern significant milestones on the road to adulthood.

Prevention of bullying is now facing a new challenge – the availability and popularity of digital communication.

Quite simply, the digital community is the world in which today’s young people live. It is a world that offers endless possibilities  and exciting opportunities. However, negative behaviours such as bullying have transferred to this new world and, in doing so, have gained some new attributes.

Cyberbullying is able to operate far faster and is far more easily disseminated.

Now, rather than telling something to one person or a small group of people, it is possible to share a negative comment, story or photograph with hundreds at a key stroke and for them to pass it on with the same minimal level of effort. The multiplier effect of those who pass it on is enormous.

Similarly the difficulty of ‘taking it back’ has increased exponentially. Once a comment, a story or a photo is digitally communicated it can never be completely withdrawn.

Realistically, for most young people, the world knowing their business is not as serious a concern as the fact that they may be considered a ‘loser’ by their friends and the social group to which they aspire. To have this negative message constantly reinforced can be devastating, which is one of the reasons cyberbullying can be so harmful.

Cyberbullying is pervasive. Young people are constantly connected. Recent research has shown that 84% of kids (some as young as eight years of age) are linked into social networking sites every day. Many, especially girls and young women, have their mobile phones on all the time. Thus they have no respite, no safe haven into which they can retreat. However, being cut off from their social network is usually an even greater fear.

It is therefore ironic that one of the features of digital communication is its potential for anonymity. Whilst young people are extensively connected, they can also be anonymous and emotionally removed. Those involved in bullying, particularly those passing it on, can remain distanced from the depth of distress their actions cause. In the cyber world they can far more easily disassociate their actions and the consequences.

Bridging this gap is the focus of the current anti-cyberbullying campaign of Smart Online Safe Offline (SOSO).

SOSO is a unique collaboration between NAPCAN and digital marketing consultants, Profero, which has received seed funding from the Telstra Foundation to work directly with children and young people to educate them to stay safe off and online.

SOSO’s Cyber Bullying Affects Real Lives campaign focuses on changing the behaviour of the ‘active bystanders’, those who laugh or applaud and who perpetuate and extend the bullying by passing the material on.
With the support of a broad cross-section of the digital media industry, including Google, all the major social networking sites and Cartoon Network, the innovative SOSO campaign captures the kids’ attention in their world and in their language. Using a YouTube video and interactive creative, young people (actors) arouse empathy to increase the young viewers’ awareness of the impact of their actions and to motivate them to change their behaviour. The behaviour change process is reinforced through a series of educational games and activities. In this way young people are invited to become part  of a network of their peers taking a stand against cyberbullying.

In only its fourth week, this innovative campaign has created great interest. The YouTube video has been viewed by over 31,000 and over 6,300 young people have signed on to take a stand against cyberbullying. The campaign is achieving extraordinary levels of awareness and participation but the true goal is behaviour change.

An independent evaluation will assess the efficacy of this approach in addressing an age-old problem in a new world.

1.  This Declaration Against Bullying in Children and Youth was made in Kandersteg, Switzerland on 8 June 2007 – see

Maree Faulkner is CEO of the National Association for Prevention of Child Abuse see See also