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Highlights from the International Day against violence and bullying at school including cyberbullying event with experts in Turku, Finland

On 4 November 2021 UNESCO and the world celebrated International Day against violence and bullying at school including cyberbullying. A special session on cyberbullying was organized by the University of Turku in Turku, Finland, in collaboration with UNESCO , to mark the International Day against violence and bullying at school including cyberbullying which this year focused on ‘Tackling cyberbullying and other forms of online violence involving children and young people’.


The special session on cyberbullying also marked the opening of the international Workshop on Aggression, which was held under the theme of ‘Prevention of aggression and violence among and against youth’ and gathered around a hundred scholars of aggression. 


The hybrid session was attended by around 150 people from around the world, and covered the role of the education sector in preventing and addressing cyberbullying. It included presentations by four international experts in cyberbullying prevention and a panel discussion co-facilitated by representatives from the University of Turku and UNESCO. 


Emphasizing a holistic approach to cyberbullying and bullying prevention


Some findings presented showed that there is a relatively low prevalence of cyberbullying compared to offline bullying and victimization in Finland. ‘General’ antibullying programmes’ prevent online bullying, and being bullied online seems to be a reliable sign that the child is also bullied in other ways.  It is therefore important to address bullying and cyberbullying holistically rather than try to prevent or intervene in a specific incident taking a specific form.


Other conclusions at the event showed that the most prominent risk factor for online bullying is actually offline bullying. Findings from a Cambridge research  showed that that the most effective interventions included components at different levels: school, classroom, peers, individual students and parents. Most interventions that included content for both online and offline bullying and victimization were effective in preventing both.


The role of bystanders in cyberbullying and the importance of promoting empathy


Another subject at the event addressed the role of the bystanders in cyberbullying. Besides regulation, media education and support, prevention programmes involving bystanders of cyberbullying hold great potential for tackling cyberbullying. The bystanders can be supportive to the victim, passive, or reinforce the cyberbullying. Social norms that are accepted by a group influence how bystanders behave, and bystanders who perceive their friends support the cyberbullying are likely to join in and reinforce it, while prosocial peer norms lead to less cyberbullying behaviours. This is the reason for many effective interventions that aim at strengthening empathy among children, as empathy increases support for victims and reduces acceptance of cyberbullying.


Prioritizing behavioral over technological interventions


During the event, children’s perceptions and experiences with cyberbullying and bullying in general from the Global South were presented. In South Africa, the prevalence of cyberbullying is high, and a study revealed that there was a 39% of co-occurrence of cyberbullying with bullying in schools, and a 13% co-occurrence with sexual abuse. Violence and abuse are normalized to a high degree. Schools there either seemed to ignore the problem or took a punitive response such as banning or confiscating phones, punishing children or banning them from schools if cyberbullying occurred. But the so-called ‘zero tolerance’ approaches offer little to no opportunity to address behaviours or drivers of bullying. Restrictive policies including restrictive parenting showed to limit risks of cyberbullying but also the development of digital and media skills and consequently digital resilience.


The conclusion was that school safety approaches should include first and foremost behavioral interventions and only later technological interventions.


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