The Rising Link Between Technology and Bullying

Katherine Howard, Smoothwall’s Head of Education and Wellbeing, talks about technology’s role in the rise of bullying but more importantly, how technology can be crucial in helping schools identify potential instances of bullying and intervene.


First things first, cyberbullying is just bullying under a different guise. It’s the same thing and bullying is not a new concept. However, young people now have to deal with bullying in a different form and through new online channels where there is often no escape. You don’t just leave your bully at the school gates anymore. 


That’s not to say that online bullying has eradicated the traditional forms of bullying. Ofcom’s latest media use study found that 20% of children aged 8-17 have experienced bullying face to face. Yet, bullying online is more prevalent, with 29% of children in the same age range having experienced someone being nasty or hurtful to them via apps or social media platforms. 


Interestingly, Ofcom’s 2022 report found that the most common way for children to be bullied via technology was through text or messaging apps (56%), followed by social media (43%) or online games (30%).


The increased use of technology amongst young people


Young people are gaining access to technology at a much younger age and the COVID-19 pandemic played a significant part in this. 


This was particularly evident with social media apps such as WhatsApp, where often children didn’t have the skills or knowledge of how it works and how to best interact with it. Many young people see celebrities and influencers voicing their opinions online and think, why can’t I do the same thing, without thinking about the consequences for them or those around them.


Without a doubt, the development of technology for young people has undoubtedly been invaluable in education, particularly in offering access to wider knowledge, systems and tools. Yet it also presents challenges to schools, teachers and digital safeguarding leads (DSLs). 


Identifying instances of bullying in schools


Many iterations of bullying in schools are flagged, or known of, thanks to filtering and monitoring solutions. In fact, every hour, Smoothwall Monitor flags 1 student in the UK who is suspected to be involved in a very serious cyberbullying, bullying or violent incident. That equates to 24 children per day, 168 children per week and a total of 8,736 children per year that are potentially involved in a serious cyberbullying incident. 


Whilst those statistics are worrying, they are identifiable. Schools are being made aware of potential instances of bullying that are happening. This allows them to put processes in place to try and identify the severity of the issue and implement the necessary measures to rectify the situation.


Due to monitoring and specific filtering technology being strongly recommended in schools as part of the KCSIE guidance, the majority of online bullying activity takes place outside of school hours. 


The parental challenge at home


Often there is a technological generation gap between parents and children, especially with teenagers – we need to empower parents with the right tools and help them make the right decisions to help protect their children online. There are numerous parental controls that can be put in place on young people’s devices and in these individual apps. 


However, conversations with adults about online safety and behaviour online are now just as important as the conversation around sex education. Children need to understand that just like in the playground, their online behaviour has consequences. Longer term, as children get older there are lots of instances of online activity having consequences that can be shared, like seen with celebrities having old offensive social media posts exposed. Online information is free for all to see and could impact personal and professional lives down the line. 


Barriers to reporting online bullying


When it comes to reporting incidents of bullying to an adult, there are several common barriers preventing children from doing so, and these differ depending on whether they report it to a teacher or parent. Research has found that 66% of children aged 10-15 don’t report bullying incidents, as they either don’t think it’s important or they don’t want to acknowledge the issue. For young people, the biggest fear about reporting a bully to a teacher is the repercussions from the bully – will it just get worse? 


When it comes to confiding in a parent, it’s important children feel they are believed and are reassured that it’s not their fault. Only 1 in 10 young people inform a parent or trusted adult that they have been cyberbullied and this is often due to worries of either not being believed or embarrassment. The most crucial reaction however, is to praise the child for coming forward and to not just ban the technology or app. Instead, this is a prime opportunity to support young people and educate them on how to deal with these instances in the future and build a digital resilience. These instances should be reported to the school but also to the technology provider – something many parents don’t know how to do and social media apps could provide better support.


Overall, technology most definitely has its place with this generation and future younger generations, particularly when it comes to education. Firstly, when it comes to keeping young people safe online at school, schools and colleges need to ensure their filtering and monitoring solutions are doing all they can and are stringent when it comes to identifying unsafe online behaviour, they’re not just installed to tick a box. 


Outside of school hours? It’s imperative that the whole school community starts and maintains conversations about online bullying and digital safety. It will provide a support system, raise awareness and education for all involved and encourage open and honest conversations from a young age.