Combatting The Cyberbully Myth

Why do we keep telling children that the law cannot protect them against severe cyberbullying? Time and time again politicians and the press claim that there is nothing police or parents can do if a child is being bullied on the internet, and that government needs to step in.

The parliamentary secretary for communications Paul Fletcher claimed this month that for children who were victims of bullying online, if sites like Facebook didn’t help, ”you really have no redress at all”.

This is gobsmackingly negligent. There are Commonwealth laws on the books that were written to do exactly that.

Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code makes it unlawful to use a carriage service – that is, telephone or internet – to menace, harass, or offend. The penalty can be jail.

Then, should the criminal code not be enough, there is defamation law (almost all acute cyberbullying involves defamatory speech), anti-stalking laws, laws against harassment and blackmail, and laws that protect people against threats and fears of violence to the person.

Indeed, some of these laws are excessively powerful.

Still, the fact is they exist.

The Abbott government is holding an inquiry into its election promise to establish a ”children’s e-safety commissioner” who is supposed to protect kids from cyberbullying.

This commissioner would have the legal power to force social media companies to remove abusive content from their sites in response to complaints from the public.

”Remove”, of course, is a synonym for censor. It’s bizarre that a government that promised to run a ”freedom agenda” would want to create a grand new bureaucratic body to censor the internet.

(Ironies abound. Tony Abbott announced this internet censorship proposal just a few days after he announced he would repeal section 18c of the Racial Discrimination Act because the latter was an unconscionable limit on the human right to free expression.)

But anything to help victimised children, right? Well, not if it won’t actually help them.

Bullying is a very serious problem. The harm of bullying should not be played down. At its worst and most tragic, it can lead to suicide. The desire that the government has to do something about bullying is irreproachable. But there are a lot of widely held misconceptions about the nature of cyberbullying.

First of all, there is no such thing as ”cyberbullying”. There is just bullying. The research evidence demonstrates clearly that people who are bullied online are also bullied offline. Of course, this makes intuitive sense. Bullying is a social problem, not a technological one.

In fact, the academic literature consistently suggests cyberbullying is less of a problem than traditional bullying. As a 2012 paper in Complementary Pediatrics put it, ”School bullying is more common than online bullying.” Furthermore, being bullied at school is more distressing.

It’s important not to take the very real bullying problem and turn it into a moral panic about technology.

Bullying is intentional aggressive conduct sustained over time that incorporates some kind of power imbalance – real or perceived – between the bully and bullied. Having a bureaucrat whose job it is to delete individual instances of abusive speech online won’t tackle the basic problem of children being cruel to each other.

Certainly not if a victim is subjected to sustained harassment the moment they return to the playground. Or if the abuse just migrates to less easily monitored websites.

A children’s e-safety commissioner would only offer adults a false sense of security that the bullying has been dealt with.

The major social media sites are doing an increasingly effective job at policing their own networks, and without the iron fist of the state supervising them. Facebook, the site with the youngest cohort, has developed rather extensive systems to report and ban abusive users.

Perhaps surprisingly, a more effective mechanism than reporting users for abuse is the humble unfollow and block. This neutralises the cruelty, therefore reducing the harm, and is necessary to develop coping strategies for young victims.

A lot of cyberbullying is apparently done by text message. Most mobile phones now have a feature that allows users to block calls and messages from certain numbers.

And in the case of severe abuse, there is always recourse to the law. Too often people use the word ”bullying” to describe serious criminal conduct including death threats and physical assault. But the biggest barrier to reducing the harm from bullying is the fact that many children simply don’t tell their parents or teachers what is happening. Too often adults don’t have a chance to help, to provide counsel or support.

So we have to educate parents to identify signs that their children are being bullied, and what can be done.

We have to educate children about the many institutional, legal, and technological resources available to support them.

But most of all, we have to stop this incredibly dangerous political falsehood that there are no remedies available for children who are being bullied, online or off.