International Day against violence and bullying at school: What you need to know about online violence including cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is widespread globally. Like bullying, it has negative effects on academic achievement, mental health and the quality of students’ lives. Although online violence is not limited to school premises, the education system has an important role to play in preventing and addressing it.

Although global data is limited, evidence shows that cyberbullying has been on the rise in various regions during the pandemic. In Europe, 44% of children who were cyberbullied prior to COVID-19 reported that it had only increased during lockdown. Data from several countries also reveal that the pandemic has led to a dramatic increase in online child sexual exploitation by adults. In Canada, since the beginning of the pandemic, the Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s hotline for child abuse has seen an 81% increase in reports of online child exploitation.

On 4 November, the world is marking the International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying. This year the theme is ‘Tackling cyberbullying and other forms of online violence involving children and young people’. Here is what you need to know. 

What is online violence involving children and young people?

Online violence can be defined as intentional use of online digital devices to cause harm or discomfort on others. The United Nations’ definition of a child is a person under the age of 18 years. The United Nations defines “young people” in the age group of 10-24. Online violence involving children and young people can be divided into two categories:

  • Violence between children and young people, also known as peer-to-peer violence and often described as cyberbullying
  • Violence perpetrated by adults against children and young people under the age of 18 years, including sexual abuse and exploitation

What are the characteristics of cyberbullying?

Online psychological violence between children and young people is often referred to as cyberbullying, electronic bullying, or online bullying. Cyberbullying has the following characteristics:

  • It is repeated, or includes one-off events that are re-shared online  
  • It is deliberate and meant to hurt the victim
  • It involves a power imbalance and misuse of power
  • It is harmful in a short- or long-term perspective

What are the different forms of online violence involving children and young people?

Online violence involving children and young people, including cyberbullying, can be distinguished by two main forms of violence, although these often overlap:

  • Psychological violence, such as verbal aggressions (e.g. sending hurtful, malicious or intimidating messages), or social/relational aggressions (e.g. excluding from online groups, chats or sites; posting rumours to damage someone’s reputation, or sharing private information / photos without consent
  • Sexual violence, recognizing that online sexual violence has strong psychological dimensions and implications, such as verbal aggressions (e.g. joking, telling stories or making comments about a person’s body, appearance or sexual activities), or social/relational aggressions (e.g. pushing for sexual information, conversation or actions)

Online sexual violence that is repeated is often referred to as online sexual harassment, instead of sexual cyberbullying.

What is the link between hate speech and online violence?

Online psychological violence can be described as hate speech only when it targets a specific aspect of a person or group’s identity, including their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, skin colour, descent, gender, sexual orientation, disability or other identity factors.

How is it different when online sexual violence is perpetrated by adults?

The minimum age of sexual consent is the age from which someone is deemed capable of consenting to sexual activity. The age of sexual consent varies depending on countries, and sexual activity below the age of consent with a child is considered sexual abuse. This also applies to any online sexual experience that an adult may have with a child.

Adults who target children, perpetrate online child sexual exploitation in the following ways:

  • Producing, downloading, distributing pornography including images depicting explicit sexual activity involving children, photographs in which a child has been sexualized, or violent rape porn gifs
  • Using sexually explicit photographs or rape videos to shame or extort the child, or selling them as porn against the knowledge or will of the victim

How prevalent are cyberbullying and online sexual violence?

Although no data on global prevalence is currently available, existing regional and local studies reveal that cyberbullying and online sexual violence affect a significant number of children and young people.

What makes children and young people vulnerable to cyberbullying and other forms of online violence?

The increased access to digital tools and platforms, and especially the rise of children’s and young people’s screen time, puts all children and young people at an overall greater risk of cyberbullying and other forms of online violence. A high number of children are not aware of the risks they take when they communicate online. Moreover, even if parents are concerned about their children’s online safety, in many families there is no agreement about the use of digital technology by children, and often parents are not aware of how to implement safety measures.

As for off-line bullying, data show that the main reason for cyberbullying mentioned by children is physical appearance. Evidence further proves that children who are perceived to be “different” in any way are at a higher risk of cyberbullying. Age is also a factor that influences cyberbullying as the prevalence of cyberbullying tends to increase for older children, while off-line bullying declines with age.

Gender is a key vulnerability for online sexual violence, since it particularly affects girls and young women. This is the case for both online sexual harassment and for sexual exploitation

What are the consequences of cyberbullying and other forms of online violence on education? 

According to existing global data on the consequences of bullying in general (including online and off-line bullying), children who are frequently bullied are nearly three times more likely to feel like an outsider at school and more than twice as likely to miss school as those who are not frequently bullied. Children who are bullied have worse educational outcomes than children who do not. They score lower in mathematics and reading tests, and the more often they are bullied the worse their score. Children who are frequently bullied are also more likely to expect to leave formal education after finishing secondary school compared with children who are not frequently bullied.

What was the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cyberbullying and other forms of online violence?

The lockdowns as a response to the pandemic led to an unprecedented rise in unsupervised screen time for children and young people around the world, which exposed them to a greater risk of online violence including bullying. All available data reveal that during the pandemic there was an increase in the scale of both cyberbullying and online child sexual exploitation by adults.

What are the links between cyberbullying and off-line bullying?

The boundary between off-line face-to-face bullying and cyberbullying is blurred since there is a strong continuum between these two. Students are often targeted off-line and online by the same perpetrator(s), sometimes anonymously. Cyberbullying is also often influenced by off-line relationships and interactions. In some instances, continuous threats and rude messages online can lead to physical violence and other fear-inducing situations off-line.

Why is cyberbullying challenging to prevent and address?

While off-line bullying is complex to tackle, cyberbullying has some unique features that bring with it additional challenges in preventing and addressing the problem. These specific characteristics include:

  • The possibility for perpetrators to stay anonymous while bullying
  • The larger scope of potential humiliation of the victim due to an infinite audience online. A one-off act of online violence can have the same negative impact as frequent incidents because of the large number of people who can witness it in a very short period of time
  • The increased possibility for those who witness incidents of cyberbullying to become perpetrators themselves, by following along through sharing the harmful messages or embarrassing pictures of the victim, or even by liking the harmful content on social media.  These ”followers” are not always aware of their responsibility and consequences of their actions
  • The presence of an adult or control system to support cyberbullied students is often lacking
  • The increased perception and feelings of hopelessness of targeted children and young people of not having a safe space anywhere, neither at school nor at home, because they can be reached anywhere online, and they can therefore not seem to remove themselves from the experience of being bullied
  • The difficulty or impossibility of removing negative content from the internet once it has been shared

Why should UNESCO engage in this issue? 

UNESCO has a role and mandate to ensure good quality education for all learners and is entrusted to lead and coordinate the Education 2030 Agenda, to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (SDG 4), which includes a target for ensuring safe, non-violent and inclusive learning environments for all learners (Target 4.a.2).

Given the scope and negative consequences of cyberbullying and other forms of online violence on education, they must be prevented and addressed to achieve this goal and target.

What can the education sector do to prevent and address cyberbullying and other forms of online violence involving children and young people?

Cyberbullying and other forms of online violence, although often taking place beyond the school areas, affect learners and eventually all members of the school community. Through a comprehensive response, the education sector should and can play an important role in tackling cyberbullying and other forms of online violence involving children and young people.

This comprehensive response to school bullying is often referred to as a whole-education approach. It places a greater emphasis on the significance of the whole system of education underlying the commitment not only to help students involved in bullying but to make the entire education system better equipped to reduce bullying and cyberbullying among learners. It ensures that local school initiatives recognise the importance of the interconnectedness of the school with the wider community including education, technological and societal systems. The whole-education approach to bullying prevention is described in the Recommendations by the Scientific Committee on preventing and addressing school bullying and cyberbullying. The document also provides specific recommendations for the education sector to tackle cyberbullying.

Where can I find more information on the matter?