One in five young people under the age of 18 reported experiencing online bullying in any one year and there is no reason to expect the Casey and Cardinia regions would be different, according to university researcher of psychology Evita March.
A senior lecturer at Federation University Australia, Ms March teaches psychology and conducts research in the field of psychology.
Although, she has not researched Casey and Cardinia specifically, she does know that online bullying appears to be related to age (or access to technology), with secondary students more likely to engage in bullying online than primary school students.
She anticipates running a cyber safety intervention program later this year which will include areas such as Casey and Cardinia.
“Until 2014, I largely explored interpersonal relationships. However, in 2014, after the death of Charlotte Dawson, I became interested in why people behaved the way that they do online,” Dr March said.
“I remember reading comments people had been sending to Charlotte Dawson and I was shocked … these were not perverse individuals sitting in darkness behind a screen. They were mothers, fathers, friends, neighbours …
“Everyday people engage in this behaviour. I became passionate about understanding why people are perpetrating cyber abuse.”
Dr March began teaching in tertiary psychology courses in 2010 when she commenced her PhD.
She completed her PhD in Brisbane before moving to Victoria for a full time academic role.
Since 2014 she’s worked at Federation University.
“I began teaching because during my first year of my PhD, a staff member had suddenly quit and I was offered the opportunity to teach an introductory psychology course,” she said.
“I was extremely nervous, but took the course and I discovered I had a real passion for teaching psychology. I loved it!”
Since then, Dr March has taught in nearly all areas of undergraduate psychology.
Courses in cyberpsychology (cyberbullying) are not common however Dr March says she has opportunities in courses to touch on the topic.
“I get to teach about cyberpsychology in seminars that I do for the wider public,” she said.
“I visit schools and conferences and disseminate my research results.
“I particularly enjoy getting to talk to the younger population about cyberpsychology.”
Negativity that surrounds social media can prove tough at times so Dr March has two main strategies she uses to stay positive.
“Sometimes I just stay away from social media. When I know that it is going to be ‘bad’, I make a conscious effort to stay away,” she said.
“I know the comments sections can get particularly ugly, so I just don’t engage.
“For example, after the federal election I stayed off social media the next day. I just knew it would be upsetting!”
She recognised it’s not possible to stay away totally, so her second strategy is to follow groups that make her feel good.
Following animal lover groups helps deter her from the negativity.
“I follow groups like ‘Love What Matters’ who share positive stories,” she added.
“This is how I stay positive with the negativity, I stay engaged with sources that remind me of the good and positivity that exists, and can be shared with social media.”
Dr March discovered there are different types of cyber abuse when she explored the definition of online antisocial behaviours.
“Without clear definitions it is difficult to manage and prevent the behaviour,” she said.
“Cyber abuse (or cyber aggression) involves three main areas including cyberbullying, cyber hate, and cyber violence.”
According to Dr March, cyber abuse refers to any online behaviour that is intended to harm another person that the target person wants to avoid.
Cyberbullying is defined as an aggressive, repetitive, intentional act using technology.
Cyber hate is actions or statements aimed at a target because of individual characteristics.
Finally, cyber violence is online behaviours that criminally or non-criminally assault, or can lead to assault, of a person’s physical, psychological or emotional well-being.
Dr March said there is no major difference in terms of how these forms of online antisocial behaviours affect the victim.
“All we know is that it is bad. Victims of online aggression show similar outcomes as face-to-face victims of victims, such as anxiety, depression, and loneliness,” she said.
“Some research has even found that victims of online aggression have increased self-harm and ideation compared to victims of offline aggressive behaviour.”
The professional advice Dr March gives to parents of a child experiencing cyberbullying is to establish the ‘warning signs’.
“Warning signs include, but are not limited to a change in mood, a change in interests in and outside of school, socialising less and spending more time on their own, loss of confidence, big feelings, visible anxiety when using technology, this could also include a complete withdrawal from technology,” Dr March explained.
“If a parent were to suspect cyberbullying, they could start with a conversation about what cyberbullying is and how it might make someone feel.
“The parent could then ask the child if they have ever or if they are experiencing something like this.”
A child might need assistance identifying what is happening, they might not know that it is cyberbullying, she said.
“If the child discloses they are experiencing cyberbullying, it is very important the parent does not become emotionally reactive on behalf of the child, no matter how enraged or upset they feel,” she said.
“It is important the parent models managing emotions in the face of cyberbullying.
“Most importantly, the parent should never belittle or trivialise the experience for the child – cyberbullying is upsetting in any context.”
Dr March added that it is very important to not respond with “don’t worry about it” or “just ignore it”.
“These are not helpful responses and trivialise the experience. Take cyberbullying seriously,” she said.
“The next steps are figuring out with the child how they want to manage it.
“More immediately would be to help the child with their profile privacy settings and to block any user that is cyberbullying them.”
Another great option, according to Dr March, is if they have an adult at the school they feel they can trust.
Research has shown positive outcomes for victims of cyberbullying if they have an adult (other than their parents) whom they trust and can talk to. This is then followed by peer support.
Dr March says she is optimistic about the future of cyberbullying as other countries are free from rates of cyberbullying.
“The best predictor of perpetrating cyberbullying is having experienced cyberbullying,” she said.
“I have been on the receiving end of cyber abuse – I suppose as a female researcher who predominantly internet trolling and cyber abuse, it was inevitable. It made me feel terrible.
“I remember one of the first times I encountered cyber abuse – I had posted a link to a research study of mine and someone had commented ‘probably some sl*t’s master thesis’.”
Dr March said she was so quickly blindsided by how mean it was that she removed her link immediately just to distance herself from the commenter.
“This was a long time ago and I am happy to say, I react better now,” she added.
“Should I say that I am happy to say that? Not really, it’s kind of sad I have to tolerate it at all.
“But this is the online world we live in now.”
Believing every person has experienced cyber abuse in some way, she remains passionate about her work and the impact it has.
“I support positive mental health. We are spending more and more time online, and poor mental health rates are only increasing,” she said.
“I want to promote the benefit of healthy online spaces – the internet can be a wonderful, magical social tool that unites and supports people.
“I suppose though my main motivator is that I want to help people.”
Every story of someone who has questioned their own self-worth because of cyber abuse is “heartbreaking” for Dr March.
“I want my research to help make a difference.”