As students stay home and become physically isolated from their school friends because of coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, experts say cyberbullying is becoming a growing problem.
There has already been a 70% increase in the amount of bullying among teens and children in the past month, according to the Israeli startup L1ght, which tracks online hate speech and harassment.
Natasha Tiwari, a psychologist and co-founder of education advisory firm The Veda Group, told Digital Trends that the circumstances of the lockdown “are ripe for encouraging cyberbullying.”
“Many children are at the computer for much of the day, as parents struggle to homeschool and work from home, and [this]can lead to children being more vulnerable while online,” she said, noting also that she has seen “children and parents alike experiencing spikes in anxiety levels” since the lockdown began.
Ross Ellis, founder and CEO of advocacy group Stomp Out Bullying, told Digital Trends she has also noticed a worrying uptick. “It all makes sense,” she said. “Parents may be exhausted and not paying attention to what their kids are doing online during non-school hours.”
Even before coronavirus-related lockdowns caused more students to spend time in front of a screen for schoolwork, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that about 15% of high-school-age students said they were victims of cyberbullying. But only 20% of that bullying took place on school property, the CDC reported.
“Although cyberbullying has been around for a long time, we’re living in unprecedented times, and when kids are stressed out and bored, the opportunity to cyberbully is present,” Ellis said.
Having fun, staying safe
It’s not just mental health professionals and child advocates who have noticed the problem. Manjit Sareen and Caroline Allams are co-founders of Natterhub, a soon-to-launch free digital curriculum aimed at teaching kids ages 5 to 11 in the U.K. how to be safe online while learning and having fun.
Sareen told Digital Trends the combination of working parents who are trying to school children and run a home amid the chaos of the pandemic results in many children being left unsupervised.
“We have a recent survey that says one-third of children are spending 28 hours a week online — there’s definitely going to be an increase of children being online. We would say this will possibly result in more bullying,” Sareen said.
There are ways to prevent or address cyberbullying, but solutions don’t fall entirely on the tech world or parents.
Parental controls are one of the main ways to restrict screen time and monitor which sites a child can visit. Despite some issues with the use of Google Classroom on the company’s own Chromebooks, parental controls can help limit the opportunities for cyberbullying.
Tiwari said children’s behavior should be monitored for any changes that could point to cyberbullying, like losing interest in things they usually love, depression, or any differences from their usual personality.
Ellis noted, too, that children learn behaviors — whether in real life or online — from the adults around them.
New apps and online tools are also looking to help parents protect their children from cyberbullying.
Cyber-Dive, which allows parents to monitor kids’ social media behavior, was launched early and made free for parents during the pandemic, co-founder and CEO Jeff Gottfurcht told Digital Trends.
Gottfurcht said it was completely understandable for parents to “have fallen asleep at the wheel” at a time like this.
“Social media has become so big that it’s hard for parents to be able to figure out and adapt to what kids are doing,” he told Digital Trends. “We wanted to let parents get a glimpse back in their [child’s] life.”
Allams said “the magic key to making [the internet] a safer place” is empathy, a skill Natterhub hopes to instill in children. “We’re teaching digital resilience and online empathy to counteract or minimize potential for it to become an online bullying situation,” Allams said.
Tiwari explained that “most tech fixes are not sophisticated enough to pick up on bullying behaviors,” but she said parents can still see themselves as being proactive and powerful in trying to protect their child.
It just may take setting clear and healthy boundaries on how technology and social media are used, and being clear that “even though you may have a lot going on, you are always available to talk; providing an open channel of communication can be a lifeline,” she said.
Derek Jackson, co-founder and chief technology officer of Cyber-Dive, agreed. The app’s setup is organized in a way to be a “conversation starter” between adult and child.
“We’ve intended it so they sit down with their child to connect their accounts … so they can show the child that they care about what they’re doing,” he said.
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