Our children’s mental health can suffer if they are victims of online tormentors – but there are measures ready to deal with them.

Bullying in schools around the world, and how to combat it, has become a focus of attention for professionals and experts – and that attention remains even at a time when COVID-19 has forced the physical closure of schools.

While students may experience many different types of bullying from the physical to the verbal and emotional, one area that poses a particular challenge is cyberbullying.  Because it takes place in an online environment rather than face-to-face, it is harder to pinpoint and deal with.

As Heather Lee, Psychologist at The Learning Center (TLC)a specialised centre for supporting children with mild to moderate learning needs across Qatar Foundation schools and part of the Pre-University Education – says, bullying is an intentional behaviour that hurts or humiliates a student either physically or emotionally, and that can happen while at school, in the community, or online.

Walking boy stock imageShe said that with bullying, there is often a power imbalance between those involved. Students who bully may perceive their target as vulnerable, and often find satisfaction in harming them. Cyberbullying has the potential to have a significant impact on students mental health, as it is often more secretive, unwitnessed, and underreported.

It is the use of technology to intentionally and repeatedly hurt others through online platforms. For example, someone might post inappropriate comments or rumors about someone on a site such as Instagram or Facebook, set up a fake profile for them, send offensive or threatening messages.

The challenge with cyberbullying, according to Lee, is that it is persistent; it can happen during all hours of the day. A bully can hide their identity. And, worst of all, they have access to a larger audience.

Lee said that children who are bullied can experience negative physical, and mental health issues.

They are more likely to experience depression and anxiety, have increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, and suffer from changes in sleep and eating patterns. Also, they may often display decreased academic achievement.

Protective Elements

With educational institutions adopting methods of e-learning due to COVID-19, there have been concerns that the risk and rate of cyberbullying would increase. However, Jody R Roberson, Psychologist at TLC, has an alternative view. There appears to have been a decrease in cyberbullying in QF schools.

One reason could be that parents and siblings are at home more, and are able to monitor technology usage more closely, with children spending more time with their family.

Another possible explanation, he said, is because during this time of high stress due to the global pandemic, people are more likely to focus on their basic needs being met; they do not have the time or energy to invest in other less important things, such as bullying.

What we are also seeing among older students is that there is now more of a sense of them needing to give support to their peers and maintain healthy online connections with friends.

Preventive Measures

Lee and Roberson say that some research indicates that instances of cyberbullying in Qatar could be considered as moderate when compared to worldwide figures. And if it does occur within QF schools, there are measures in place to tackle it.

Many of the cases they have experienced are related to students being bullied due to ethnicity or cultural differences, says Lee. Physical appearance also seems to be a persistent factor in students being targets for bullying.

I have also observed students with learning disabilities being targeted by bullies. Often, they don’t realise they are targets, don’t understand the bullying, or don’t have the capacity to stand up for themselves.

QF schools focus on proactive and preventative strategies to deal with bullying. They all have counselors and psychologists, who are continuing to offer support to students online even during the current period of remote learning.

In QF schools, any instance of bullying is addressed based on each individual school’s anti-bullying policies. Children often report to their parents, who then come forward, and the incident is immediately investigated by the school. With older students, they often share their experiences of bullying with the counselor or a close friend.

As mental health professionals, students are taught strategies to counter bullying. They also help students build their self-confidence so that they can overcome bullying in a healthy way.

Lee highlighted that some QF schools also have Wellness Ambassadors specially trained students who promote good mental health and raise awareness on issues like these among their peers through online platforms, school assemblies and campaigns.

Many schools also have anti-bullying awareness days, as well as lessons about cultural diversity and acceptance of others. They also have ‘Bully Blockers’ at some schools students who monitor and report instances of bullying.

Parents’ Role

Parents can look for indicators if their child is a victim of cyberbullying, such as less use of mobile phones, becoming withdrawn, drop in grades and confidence, changes in friends, and secrecy about their use of electronic equipment.

Parents are advised to talk to their children about cyberbullying, spend more time together, help their kids build confidence and encourage them to develop their talents. They should also monitor their children’s use of devices and make sure that they know their passwords.

If parents find out that their child is being cyberbullied, Lee and Roberson recommend that they reassure the child that speaking about it is doing the right thing. They also explained that the child should not respond to the bullying as it might make things worse.

The child should instead be taught to block, ignore, and report bullying messages on social media platforms; and make a record of the bullying. If the bullying is severe, and the perpetrator is unknown, the matter should be reported to the police.

Lee added that If the parents are unsure of what to do, or need help in speaking to their child, the school counselors or psychologists are great resources and are always there to support and guide both parents and students.