by Piet Coetzer

Cyber bullying on the rise

The increasing number of school children in South Africa who are being cyber bullied

Social media bullying affects several children
Social media bullying
The increasing number of school children in South Africa who are being cyber bullied needs to be noted as a distinct phenomenon impacting on the lives of many young people, families and communities. If ignored, this could reach undesirable crisis levels which could impact negatively on broader society. Apart from upsetting messages, gossip and rumour spreading, bullying includes exposure to sexual remarks and unflattering and suggestive personal photos spread online. Statistics also revealed evidence of sexting as a phenomenon emerging among young people. 
This is the disturbing picture revealed by research done by the University of South Africa’s(Unisa) Youth Research Unit (YRU) that was released last week.
The YRU, a unit of the Bureau of Market Research (BMR) in the College of Economic and Management Sciences at Unisa, recently conducted a study focusing on the nature, extent and the impact of bullying (especially cyber bullying) among secondary school learners in Gauteng. 
The study forms part of a Schools Community Engagement research project and included a total of 3 371 Gauteng learners in grades eight to twelve. 
According to Prof Deon Tustin, BMR Executive Research Director, and Ms Goodness Zulu, YRU Researcher, the study was motivated by concerns regarding the increase in incidents of bullying among young people and the need to substantiate the seriousness of this phenomenon.
“The YRU research study highlighted that almost three in every 10 learners (34.4%) who participated in the study were victims of bullying. Whereas four in 10 learners (38.1%) were aware of a friend being bullied and approximately a quarter (23.3%) admitted to having bullied other learners. The study also revealed high prevalence rates of traditional forms of bullying and more importantly the emergence of cyber bullying as a new phenomenon. This was evident from 55.3% of learners who had experienced emotional bullying while almost one in every five (16.9%) had experienced cyber bullying,” a statement by the BMR says.
The study found that most learners who participated in it perceived that bullying in general (67.7%) and cyber bullying in particular (40.3%) had increased over the past two years.
When considering learners’ efforts to avoid online bullying, Zulu maintains that there is an urgent need to address cyber bullying in particular. In this regard, approximately seven in every 10 learners (74.5%) who were cyber bullied, reported that they avoided chat rooms (26.5%) and MXit (25.5%), following the cyber bullying incidents. 
According to Zulu, these efforts indicate some level of self-protection that victims of cyber bullying have resorted to and demonstrates nonverbal cues to caregivers about emotional trauma experienced by bullied youth. Furthermore, the YRU study confirmed that cyber bullying takes place predominantly through SMSs and social networking that is accessed through cellphones. 
According to Zulu, this finding supports continuous cyber safety education directed at learners, parents and broader society.
The YRU study also highlights concerns regarding the seriousness that the impact of bullying among young people has. Those who were bullied revealed feelings of sadness and depression.
According to Prof. Tustin, these impacts primarily affect young people’s emotional development and functioning and it is anticipated that such negative emotions could contribute to the youth being trapped in a vicious cycle of exploitation and not being able to cope psychologically within their learning environment nor in broader society. 
He said that “should these feelings persist, young people may engage in self-destructive behaviour such as alcohol and drug abuse in an attempt to escape these feelings, which would further exacerbate the impact of bullying.”
According to him this finding suggests a need for intervention strategies directed at developing coping mechanisms among both victims and perpetrators, who also expressed that their bullying behaviour impacts negatively on their emotions. 
Positive finding

A positive finding of the YRU research study is that about half of the learners (51.6%) who are victims of bullying had reported the bullying incidents (parents, peers, teachers and NGOs) and that 48.7% indicated appropriate action had been taken to prevent bullying.
However, a concerning statistic emerging from the research shows that 44% of learners who were bullied reported that no action was taken to reprimand the perpetrator or to deal with the bullying incident. 
According to the research's authors, the absence of action following the reporting perpetuates violence as bullies do not face any consequences, potentially increasing the risk of heightened victimisation. 
In this regard, Zulu is of the opinion that “the absence of action can also be a contributory factor to learners feeling a sense of helplessness and despair. This may lead to a lack of future reporting owing to a lack of trust in adults who are entrusted with protection powers.” 
This finding highlights the need to develop binding guidelines or, at least, to strengthen and monitor the implementation effectiveness of existing guidelines that deal with reported bullying incidents, especially within the education system. In general, the study provides relevant information for the development of suitable prevention programmes that aim to address the increase in bullying incidents among South African youth. 
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