FeaturePerspective

Cyberbullying may increase during COVID-19 pandemic, expert says

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with adolescents likely to use digital platforms even more for personal or educational purposes, there could be a concurrent increase in cyberbullying, an expert warned.

“When smartphones and social media became ubiquitous for students, cyberbullying rates went up,” Sameer Hinduja, PhD, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said in a news release.

“This makes sense, of course, because there was now an almost limitless number of potential targets and aggressors,” he continued. “During this unprecedented time when [children] are all stuck at home, those same students will be using apps even more than they already do with them being forced to use online platforms for learning, regardless of their level of comfort or proficiency.”

Targets of cyberbullying may hesitate to seek help, Hinduja said. Adolescents may suffer silently, and educators will not be able to see any visual cues because the student is not physically present in school.

Meaningful, connective conversations that largely happen in school with teachers, guidance counselors or coaches, cannot physically happen for students while they are out of school.

“It is also very possible that xenophobic or racist cyberbullying may go up,” Hinduja said. “Some continue to call COVID-19 a ‘foreign virus,’ and parents have complained that their children are being accused of as carriers because they are Asian. I am Asian and have dealt with my share of bullying based on race or ethnicity, and so I am particularly sensitive to this issue and simply do not want to see it spiral out of control.”

Hinduja provided a list of suggestions for educators to follow, while working from home:

  • In your online learning platforms and environments, set expectations and standards immediately and clearly for respectful behavior among students.
  • Determine exactly what consequences you can implement for rule violations, and make sure they truly have a deterrent effect on students.
  • Keep close tabs on all online interactions and encourage your students to send you screenshots or screen recordings of any rule violations they see to help you investigate and facilitate takedowns of problematic or abusive content.
  • Model and reinforce positive peer interactions in all venues where online interactions can take place.
  • Most importantly, keep in touch with those few you know who need a deeper connection, encouraging words or accountability.

Hinduja said students may struggle with feelings of isolation “because they are not able to go to school and connect and interact with their peers in person.”

Hinduja also provided a list for parents, suggesting that they should be creative in finding ways children do not suffer extremes of social isolation:

  • Be patient with your children if they start to get irritable and frustrated. They are trying to reconcile this new reality, like adults are. Moreover, children are probably not going to be as good as hiding their emotions or redirecting them like adults.
  • Allow and support children when it comes to FaceTime or Skype-ing with their friends, as well as livestreaming on apps. Research has shown that socializing and connecting with peers is essential for their continued healthy development — especially in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
  • Encourage physical activity without doing so in a group setting. Physical activity is necessary at all ages to calm the mind and support cognitive growth.

“With intentionality, graciousness, and good will, we don’t have to just survive through this crisis, we can actually thrive, and our relationships with the youth we care for can be better off than they were before all of this even began,” Hinduja said. – by Ken Downey Jr.

Disclosures: Hinduja reports no relevant financial disclosures.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, with adolescents likely to use digital platforms even more for personal or educational purposes, there could be a concurrent increase in cyberbullying, an expert warned.

“When smartphones and social media became ubiquitous for students, cyberbullying rates went up,” Sameer Hinduja, PhD, professor of criminology and criminal justice at Florida Atlantic University and co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, said in a news release.

“This makes sense, of course, because there was now an almost limitless number of potential targets and aggressors,” he continued. “During this unprecedented time when [children] are all stuck at home, those same students will be using apps even more than they already do with them being forced to use online platforms for learning, regardless of their level of comfort or proficiency.”

Targets of cyberbullying may hesitate to seek help, Hinduja said. Adolescents may suffer silently, and educators will not be able to see any visual cues because the student is not physically present in school.

Meaningful, connective conversations that largely happen in school with teachers, guidance counselors or coaches, cannot physically happen for students while they are out of school.

“It is also very possible that xenophobic or racist cyberbullying may go up,” Hinduja said. “Some continue to call COVID-19 a ‘foreign virus,’ and parents have complained that their children are being accused of as carriers because they are Asian. I am Asian and have dealt with my share of bullying based on race or ethnicity, and so I am particularly sensitive to this issue and simply do not want to see it spiral out of control.”

Hinduja provided a list of suggestions for educators to follow, while working from home:

  • In your online learning platforms and environments, set expectations and standards immediately and clearly for respectful behavior among students.
  • Determine exactly what consequences you can implement for rule violations, and make sure they truly have a deterrent effect on students.
  • Keep close tabs on all online interactions and encourage your students to send you screenshots or screen recordings of any rule violations they see to help you investigate and facilitate takedowns of problematic or abusive content.
  • Model and reinforce positive peer interactions in all venues where online interactions can take place.
  • Most importantly, keep in touch with those few you know who need a deeper connection, encouraging words or accountability.

Hinduja said students may struggle with feelings of isolation “because they are not able to go to school and connect and interact with their peers in person.”

Hinduja also provided a list for parents, suggesting that they should be creative in finding ways children do not suffer extremes of social isolation:

  • Be patient with your children if they start to get irritable and frustrated. They are trying to reconcile this new reality, like adults are. Moreover, children are probably not going to be as good as hiding their emotions or redirecting them like adults.
  • Allow and support children when it comes to FaceTime or Skype-ing with their friends, as well as livestreaming on apps. Research has shown that socializing and connecting with peers is essential for their continued healthy development — especially in the midst of chaos and uncertainty.
  • Encourage physical activity without doing so in a group setting. Physical activity is necessary at all ages to calm the mind and support cognitive growth.

“With intentionality, graciousness, and good will, we don’t have to just survive through this crisis, we can actually thrive, and our relationships with the youth we care for can be better off than they were before all of this even began,” Hinduja said. – by Ken Downey Jr.

Disclosures: Hinduja reports no relevant financial disclosures.

    Perspective

    Cori Cross

    With COVID-19 closing schools in many states, children are turning to online schooling and with this comes a huge increase in device use by most children and teens. This doesn’t necessarily mean, however, that there will be an increase in cyberbullying and a complete breakdown of parental rules. This is actually a wonderful opportunity for parents to spend some time talking with their child as to what cyberbullying means, and to talk through issues their child may be experiencing. It is also a great time for parents to establish guidelines and take the time to check-in and ensure that their child’s online behavior is acceptable.

    Most parents are at home with their kids, more so now than they have ever been before. So although children may have more time and access to devices, parents have more ability to monitor their child’s behavior and engage with them.

    Younger children and tweens really should not be having “privacy” from their parents online. Parents need to be empowered to oversee what their elementary and middle school children are doing and with whom they are chatting.

    To think there wouldn’t be any cyberbullying during this time would be unrealistic, especially with so many children having excess frustration and a lot of free time. There will be children who take that frustration out on other kids. Parents need to be conscious of this possibility and schedule check-ins both to ensure their child is okay and behaving appropriately. With parents and children home, most households are getting back to family dinners. Parents can use those dinners not just to discuss cyberbullying but to talk about how their children are feeling in general if they are feeling isolated, lonely or stressed. 

    Although our concern is of course cyberbullying, what we are more likely to see is kids reaching out to one another as a support system. The upside to having all this connectivity is that sad and lonely children may actually have increased support.

    We often see this in children who are hospitalized. They can feel very isolated. Having that virtual connection, the online social availability of their friends, really helps combat some of those feelings of loneliness and isolation. The hope would be that the social aspect of the connection that's going on in many homes right now with increased device use will outpace any uptick in cyberbullying. But it will be up to parents to make sure they are providing the guidance and supervision necessary to ensure that these online interactions are positive ones.

    Disclosure: Cross reports no relevant financial disclosures.

    • Cori Cross, MD
    • Pediatrician
      Children’s Hospital Los Angeles
      Executive board member
      AAP Council on Communications and Media

    See more from COVID-19 Resource Center