Cyberbullying in the age of COVID-19 and social change: an expert’s perspective
Director - Social Purpose Programs, For Good and TELUS Wise
Both COVID-19 and the surging dialogue about systemic racism inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement have influenced how much time we are spending online, what we are consuming and how we are interacting.
To mark #StopCyberBullyingDay on June 19, we spoke with Dr. Wendy Craig, a professor and Head of the Department of Psychology at Queen’s University, and a leading international scientist and expert on bullying prevention and the promotion of healthy relationships. As co-founder and Scientific Director of PREVNet* (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), Dr. Craig has transformed our understanding of bullying and effectively translated the science into evidence-based practice, intervention and policy.
Dr. Craig shares her insights on how this historic moment in time is impacting the evolution of cyberbullying.
Q: How has the pandemic affected cyberbullying?
WC: We don't have any new, quality data to indicate an increase or decrease in cyberbullying. That said, we do know that children and youth are spending more time online. However, time on line (exposure) is not a strong risk factor for involvement in cyberbullying. It is more complicated than that. Risk factors associated with cyberbullying include a preference for being online over interacting in the real world and having an addiction to social media. So, spending more time online, is not necessarily translating into being more likely to be cyberbullied.
Children and youth are spending more time online right now doing a variety of things from schoolwork to entertainment, to gaming to socializing. They are likely doing it with less adult supervision and monitoring. Parents are managing a lot of change, working at home and dealing with possible financial stress and other stressors. Consequently, with everything parents are trying to navigate, it is likely challenging for them to monitor their children’s online activity with the increased vigilance and support that is required right now.
Q: Are there any new trends that you’re seeing specific to the pandemic?
WC: Everyone in the household is online more often. Parents can take the lead in setting clear boundaries about time spent online. How can we be intentional about separating work time, school time, and social time? Role modeling is critical, as is communicating with kids about struggling to manage those boundaries. Kids need to receive a clear and consistent message – “when I’m with you, I’m with you, and my device is down.” By virtue of this new situation, we’ve also replaced what would normally be physical connections with online connections. We are not visiting friends and family, we are Facetiming them or having Zoom meetings. Adults have a unique opportunity to support the kids in their lives with respect to how they are developing their social skills and whether they are interacting online in a healthy way. Ironically, adults are probably spending more time with their child online and consequently they have more opportunities to support their online behavior in the moment. It is up to adults to set realistic boundaries for themselves and the kids in their lives while contextualizing this new digital-first way of interacting socially.
Q: Has the pandemic exacerbated or shaped any trends that were present pre-COVID? Has there been a change in “tone?”
WC: What we have seen is a marked change in the perception of spending significant time online. We’ve shifted our perspective from fear and demonization being online to seeing the benefits and value of being online. In general, there seems to be a greater acceptance of spending time online and the positive benefits associated with being online - we connect with others. And we’ve seen a surge in creativity in what we can do online and how we can do it. Kids are figuring out really interesting ways to entertain themselves in a social way with dance parties, group workouts, group hangouts online, board games, and they are not just passively scrolling through different social media sites or apps. The conversation about time spent online has definitely shifted to focus on the social, academic, physical and emotional benefits of being able to connect, access resources, and feel a sense of belonging.
Q: With physical connections limited, we’re engaging a lot more on social channels, text and video. Is there any upside? Have you seen positive trends coming out of the pandemic as well?
WC: Kids have more access to the moment-to-moment news unfolding in the world. They have been reading about the pandemic online. And more recently, they have been seeing the Black Lives Matter demonstrations decrying George Floyd’s death, police brutality, and deep-rooted systemic racism. This experience is traumatic and today’s events are triggering for so many. But conversation and educating our youth can help drive positive change. Adults need to sit down and have conversations with kids, contextualize what is happening and navigate their moral compass through it. These are very important and valuable moments in our history. We have an opportunity to start conversations with kids about standing up and calling out racism in our society in a way that is non-violent, supportive, and can bring about social change. And we can help them understand the importance of acknowledging the very real pain that people are feeling from the experience of racism, fear, loss and inequity that has spanned many generations.
Q: With more time being spent online, what are some warning signs of cyberbullying? Have they changed at all?
WC: Cyberbullying is harder to identify in homes right now than in the past. Kids are living a different social reality, which is likely influencing their development. In general, they are experiencing more stress and anxiety. Behaviours typically change with cyberbullying. Kids become socially isolated; they often experience depression and are unwilling to share their activities on social media. But all of those factors are more normative right now. Unfortunately, cyberbullying is not the most profound thing that kids are experiencing right now. It could be one of many stressors, which makes it harder to identify. The uncertainty about the real nature of kids’ current experiences underscores the importance of talking to them regularly about their lives, including their digital activities and connections.
Q: #StopCyberBullyingDay is on June 19. Can you comment on the importance of this campaign? How can people participate?
WC: It is important to acknowledge that cyberbullying is a problem online, and kids are at risk for becoming involved in it. Some kids may be experiencing this additional stressor in these already stressful times. I think the campaign highlights how important it is to come together and stand up against this aggressive and harmful behaviour. It is bringing awareness to the importance of being kind, compassionate, and having integrity online. While vital to combating cyberbullying, these are also core human values that will help us move through the pandemic and confront systemic racism. Interestingly, June 19 also happens to be Junteenth, which commemorates the end of slavery in the United States. We have this amazing opportunity to come together and stand up for one another. Respect, kindness and honouring each other are values that we need right now to survive and make lasting societal change.
Q: What advice do you have for parents and kids, especially during this time of disruption, uncertainty and more widespread technology adoption?
WC: Be kind to yourself. Know what you are doing is good enough. Accept that we all aren’t our best selves right now. Kids need understanding and empathy as they go through these stressful times. Give them space to reset and reconnect when they are ready. Ultimately, caring for yourself and your kids with gentleness and compassion will help you get through this experience. I think it is also important to focus on the positives coming out of COVID. Are there things that families can engage in online that can create positive experiences? Are there things that you have been doing now that are creating more positive times with your family - going for walks regularly, doing puzzles, lingering over the dinner table and talking, or connecting with others online. COVID has initiated a really important conversation about the benefits of being online and how we can spend online and offline time together.
Q: Any final thoughts?
WC: During this challenging and difficult time, we have an opportunity to reflect. What can we do to be better in how we treat people, including ourselves? That reflection also translates to our lives online. Being online isn’t the issue. We need to be more conscious and proactive about how we are online, the people and ideas we are connecting with and the quality of our interactions and activities.
*PREVNet is one of the founding partners of TELUS Wise.