Creating safe digital spaces

It is imperative that digital platforms are free of cyberbullying, if learners have to access quality education. 

By Sh. Santosh Sarangi and Eric Falt

The read the published version in the Hindu click here.  

Recognizing that school-related violence in all its forms is an infringement of children’s right to education and to health and well-being, UNESCO Member States have declared the first Thursday of November as the International Day against Violence and Bullying at School, including Cyberbullying. 

It aims to raise awareness among students, parents, members of the school community, education authorities and others about the very real problem of online violence and cyberbullying.

In India, an estimated 71 million children aged between 5 to 11 years access the Internet on the devices of their family members, constituting about 14 percent of the country's active Internet user base of over 500 million. It should also be noted that two-thirds of internet users in India are in the age group of 12-29 years. 

School closures as a response to the COVID-19 lockdowns have led to an unprecedented rise in unsupervised screen time for children and young people around the world, which in turn exposed them to a greater risk of online violence. Various reports have indicated increased incidence of cyber bullying and online child sexual exploitation by adults. 

In the same vein, there is growing scientific evidence which suggests that cyberbullying has negative consequences on the education, health and well-being of children and young people and could have long-term negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing. 

Published in 2019 and drawing on data from  144 countries, UNESCO’s report  Behind the numbers: Ending school violence and bullying highlighted the extent of the problem, with almost one in three students worldwide reporting being bullied at least once in the preceding month. Therefore, effective cyberbullying prevention interventions should aim at tackling all types of bullying and victimization experiences at the same time, as opposed to each in silo. 
Effective interventions also require gender sensitive and targeted approaches that respond to needs of learners who are most likely to be the victims of cyberbullying and other online violence. A 2020 study by Plan International involving 14,000 women aged 15-25 from across 22 countries, revealed that 58 per cent of girls in the Asia-Pacific region reported online harassment. Globally, of the girls who were harassed, 14 per cent who self-identified as having a disability; and 37 per cent who identified themselves as from an ethnic minority said they get harassed because of it.

As is the case of bullying in the physical world, the impact of online sexual harassment could have long-term negative impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.  Available data on school bullying demonstrates its harmful impacts  on students’educational outcomes. It also leads to negative effects on academic achievement, mental health, and the quality of life of students. Children who are frequently bullied are nearly three times as likely to feel left out at school as those who are not. They are also twice as likely to miss out on school and have a higher tendency to leave formal education after finishing secondary school.

Although online violence is not limited to school premises, the education system plays a crucial role in addressing online safety, digital citizenship and technology use. Concerted efforts must be made to  provide children and young people with the knowledge and skills to identify online violence so that they can protect themselves from its different forms, whether perpetrated by peers or adults.

Teachers also play a critical role in preventing cyberbullying by teaching students about online safety, mediating and supporting parental involvement 

For those looking to prevent and counter cyberbullying, the information booklet brought out by UNESCO in partnership with NCERT on Safe Online Learning in Times of COVID-19 can be a useful reference. The booklet supports the creation of safe digital spaces and addresses nuances of security, especially in the current context. Similarly, to prevent the adverse effect of online gaming and the psycho-emotional stress that children could be undergoing, the Department of School Education and Literacy has circulated exhaustive guidelines to raise the children and parental awareness. 

At a time when COVID-19 lockdowns, still in place in many states, have resulted in online bullying, we must redouble our efforts to tackle this menace. Cyberbullying may take place in a “virtual” world, but it has a very real impact on children’s health.The Ministry of Education, Government of India and UNESCO are committed to ensure access to safe, inclusive and health promoting learning environments for all children. 

It is imperative that digital platforms and social media platforms are free of cyberbullying, if learners have to access quality education. More importantly, confidential reporting and redressal services must be established to ensure that school communities have effective channels to report and follow up incidents of cyberbullying and other forms of online violence. 

We call upon and encourage students, parents, schools, education authorities, members of the education community and its partners to take part in preventing online violence and promoting the safety and wellbeing of children and young people.

Written jointly by Sh. Santosh Sarangi, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Education, Government of India and Eric Falt, Director, UNESCO New Delhi.