Monday, 25 November 2019

Escape the cyber bully

Gone are the days that the bully was waiting for you under a tree or around a corner.  The bully is now in your hands and on your desk.  It can occur anywhere, through emails, cellular phones or social media websites. The effects can be devastating, leaving you feeling hurt, humiliated, angry, depressed or even suicidal.  This type of bullying is referred to as cyberbullying: bullying that takes place in the form of texts, as SMS’s or online in social media, forums or gaming where people can view, participate in or share content.

In a 2018 survey by Ipsos Global Advisor, it was found that South Africa showed the highest prevalence of cyberbullying amongst 28 countries that participated in the survey. According to the report, more than 80% of South Africans  said that they were aware of cyberbullying.  Fifty-four percent (54%) of parent who took part in the study admitted to knowing at least one child in their community who has been a victim of cyberbullying – this is an increase of 24% from 2011.

Cyberbullies torment their victims 24 hours a day and they follow the victim anywhere so that no place, not even home, ever feels safe, and with a few clicks, the humiliation can be witnessed by hundred or even thousands of people online.  Threatening and taunting messages through text can all have a serious impact on emotions and social interaction.

Here are more examples of behavior that could be cyberbullying:

  • Sending mean emails, texts or instant messages.
  • Sending neutral messages to someone to the point of harassment.
  • Posting hurtful things about someone on social media.
  • Spreading rumors or gossip about someone online.
  • Making fun of someone in an online chat that includes multiple people.
  • Attacking or killing an avatar or character in an online game, constantly and on purpose.
  • Pretending to be another person by creating a fake online profile.
  • Threatening or intimidating someone online or in a text message.
  • Taking an embarrassing photo or video and sharing it without permission.

It’s important to know that not all online conflicts between kids are cyberbullying. Sometimes, kids get into arguments on social media. They may also banter with each other or use inside jokes while texting. (Read about the difference between teasing and bullying.)

So what are the warning signs? A child may be the victim of cyberbullying if he or she –

  • Becomes sad, angry or distressed during or after using the internet or a phone;
  • Appears anxious when receiving a text, email or have been on social media websites;
  • Avoids discussions or is secretive about computer or cellular activities;
  • Withdraws from family, friends and activities they previously enjoyed;
  • Refuses to go to school or to specific classes, or avoids group activities; or
  • Illustrate changes in mood, behaviour, sleep, appetite or shows signs of depression or anxiety.

Earlier this year, a 13-year-old girl from Pretoria committed suicide after a photograph was sent around her school on WhatsApp.  It’s understood that the Grade 6 pupil took her life at her home after a Grade 7 pupil threatened to distribute a video of her naked.   

Cyberbullying has resulted in many suicides and has affected numerous people, so preventing this form of bullying has become a critical matter. Because cyberbullying is more of a covert style of harassment, it creates difficulty in identifying victims and dealing with perpetrators. So, what happens when cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful and criminal behaviour?  According to the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention South Africa does not have specific legislation dealing with cyberbullying.

You can prevent cyberbullying before it starts.  According to the South African Police Service, parents need to teach their children to block communication with cyberbullies.  Children should also be taught never to poster their personal information online, including full name, address, telephone numbers, school’s name and personal information of friends. Passwords should be kept secret and discussions about your life should not happen online. Parents should also monitor their children’s use of technology.  This can be done by keeping the computer in a busy part of the house, where it can be seen, add filters to your computer and tracking of inappropriate web content and by encouraging your child to share threatening messages with you.

If your child is the cyberbully or responded to bullying by using their own bullying tactics, help your child to find better ways of dealing with the problem.  Get a therapist to help if your child struggles to control anger, hurt and frustration.   Educate your child about bullying so that they understand how hurtful and damaging their actions and behaviour can be.  Limit your child’s use of technology until their behaviour improves.  Be consistent with rules so that the child understands your rules and the punishment for breaking the rules.

Explain the legal consequences to your child. The legal consequences entail that a perpetrator may be criminally charged with the following offences:

Crimen injuria – the unlawful, intentional and serious violation of the dignity or privacy of another person.
Assault – any unlawful and intentional act or omission which results in another person’s bodily integrity being directly or directly impaired or which inspires a belief or fear in another person that such impairment will be carried out.
Criminal defamation – is the unlawful and intentional publication of a matter concerning another, which tends to seriously injure his or her reputation.  This includes verbal and written defamation.
Extortion – is committed when a person unlawfully and intentionally obtains some advantage, which may be of either a patrimonial or non-patrimonial nature, from another by subjecting another party to pressure.

The victim of cyberbullying can apply at the nearest Magistrate’s Court for a protection order in terms of the Protection from Harassment Act, 2011 (Act 17 of 2011).

Prof Sanette Nel, Professor of Law: Department of Criminal and Procedural Law, UNISA

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