The Reality of Online Bullying: Harassment and the Potential for Harm

In today’s interconnected world, where social media platforms have become an integral part of our lives, the impact of bullying has extended beyond traditional schoolyard settings. Online bullying, often called cyberbullying, has emerged as a growing concern, profoundly affecting the mental health and well-being of individuals and communities. In Canada, where mental health awareness is a priority, the statistics are alarmingly high, highlighting the urgent need for positive communication and conflict management strategies as critical skills to teach, practice, and role model.

The Toll on Mental Health

According to recent Canadian mental health statistics, approximately 47% of youth aged 15 to 24 have reported experiencing cyberbullying. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research found that victims of online bullying (children or adults) are more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. These statistics emphasize the detrimental impact of communicating aggressively or passive-aggressively online. This article presents some of the facts and urges us, collectively, to address this issue with the antidote to harassment and bullying – empathy.

Suffering Behind Screens

The consequences of online bullying go beyond the immediate emotional distress caused by hurtful comments and personal attacks. Cyberbullying can lead to social isolation, decreased self-esteem, academic difficulties for kids, and even physical harm in extreme cases. Moreover, the 24/7 nature of social media amplifies the reach and permanence of hurtful messages, making it increasingly difficult for victims to escape the torment and find solace.

Flip the Script! Promoting Positive Communication Strategies

To combat the prevalence and harmful effects of online bullying, we can work to adopt positive forms of communication and conflict management. Some strategies that can foster a more supportive online environment are as follows:

  • Empathy and Kindness: Encouraging empathy and kindness online can go a long way in preventing and addressing bullying. Teach children and young adults to treat others with respect, to understand the impact of their words, and to stand up healthfully against online harassment. As adults and community leaders, model this yourself.
  • Digital Literacy: Promote digital literacy and educate students, families, and the community about responsible online behaviour, critical thinking, and media literacy. Learning to discern between reliable information and harmful content can help reduce the spread of cyberbullying.
  • Open Dialogue: Foster open communication about the importance of online safety, the consequences of cyberbullying, and available support resources. Encouraging discussions around respectful communication can empower individuals to address conflicts constructively.

Adults As Role Models

Adults play a crucial role in shaping the online behaviour of young people. They must lead by example and be mindful of their actions on social media. Taking personal disputes or conflicts to public platforms can perpetuate a culture of aggression and hostility. Instead, adults can model respectful and solution-oriented approaches to conflict resolution, demonstrating the value of effective communication. If, as role models, we make mistakes (all of us are human, after all), fix them and return strengthened to the group by owning behaviours and discussing mistakes – adding plans of action to move forward is a great start!

Collectively we can work towards a future where online platforms are spaces of kindness, understanding, and support, and though this may take time, healing, and learning to cope with and manage upset, it is a doable goal and hope for all of us.

Some things you can do when you witness online harassment are as follows:

  • Consider how you can step in – to problem SOLVE – versus becoming part of the problem or co-ruminating around problems. Problems can be ‘contagious’ – If you are vulnerable, step away and protect yourself by not getting too close.
  • If you cannot role model kindness and empathy, don’t weigh in. There are times we just know we will be triggered. In these cases, walk away.
  • Try the 24-hour rule. Emotions are fleeting yet powerful – they can trick us into thinking we are right – if we lead with righteousness, we are in ego – come back to the conversation when you can lead with humility and empathy instead.
  • Be curious and use the two most powerful questions on the planet when it comes to problem-solving:

What do you need, and how can I help?

Judy teaches communication, problem-solving, and conflict-management skills as part of school and workplace development. Reach out to see if this aspect of her Human Curriculum™ could help you, your family, school, community group, or workplace: OR find Judy online @drjudyjaunzemsfernuk

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