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Combatting cyberbullying: The digital skills shield  

By Anna Cristina D’Addio and Divya Sharma, GEM Report

Today, as we mark International day against violence and bullying at school, including cyberbullying, we embark on a crucial journey to emphasize the significance of digital skills as an effective countermeasure against cyberbullying.

The digital age, with its porous boundaries between the tangible and the virtual, presents a realm in which cyberbullying exerts far-reaching and devastating repercussions.

One common myth when it comes to addressing cyberbullying is the idea that simply turning off the computer or cell phone is a solution. Disconnecting students and children from the digital world due to fear of cyberbullying might not be the optimized solution. Education is the answer to turn the tide. Students and children need to be equipped with digital skills to navigate the digital space safely and responsibly.
For example, fostering data and information literacy skills enables students and children to differentiate between misinformation (incorrect or misleading information) and disinformation (deliberately deceptive information). With these skills, they can engage with information in a deliberate and precise manner, transforming them from passive bystanders into proactive upstanders. According to the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), in education systems where students received instruction on data and information literacy, the percentage of students capable of accurately distinguishing between facts and opinions remained higher, even considering their reading proficiency. Without these skills, they may inadvertently disregard critical information, contributing to someone else’s cyberbullying victimization through their lack of awareness or inaction. With the increasing popularity of social media platforms, proficiency in digital content creation and communication skills equips them to produce content that is not only engaging and compelling but also respectful and inclusive. Additionally, when confronted with cyberbullying, they can respond proactively, exhibiting courage and intelligence to deflect the harassment, redirect the harasser, or diffuse the tension.

Countries are increasingly recognizing the importance of digital skills to navigate changing economies and societies to make the most of opportunities and protect individuals from digital risks. An analysis of the 211 GEM Report’s PEER country profiles on technology in education suggests that 54% of countries – ranging from 25% in sub-Saharan Africa to 80% in Europe and Northern America – appear to have identified digital skills standards for learners in a framework, policy, plan or strategy. Singapore has been running a cyber wellness education program in schools since 2001, encompassing a comprehensive curriculum that addresses cyberbullying and online content responsibility. More than 50% of schools in Brazil include elements of safe, responsible, and critical internet use in the content of several subjects. Over half of the 15-year-old students who participated in the 2018 PISA reported receiving formal instruction in recognizing biased information at school.Apart from identifying digital skills standards, many countries’ policies on technology in education are responding to cyberbullying with awareness-raising, reporting mechanisms and digital risk interventions, usually at the school level. In Wales, United Kingdom, the government has advised schools how to prepare for and respond to harmful viral online content and hoaxes. Guidance includes talking to learners about reporting, blocking and peer pressure, while resources aim to minimize the risk for learners of viewing offensive content. The European Union is seeking to assemble a group of “schoolyard guardians” to promote awareness of the world’s pioneering laws aimed at combating online threats, such as child sexual abuse and content related to suicide. A systematic review and meta-analysis of intervention programs in Australia, Italy, Spain, and the United States estimated that, on average, these programs have a 73% chance of reducing cyberbullying victimization. Additionally, students acquire digital skills from these interventions that are correlated with improved coping strategies.

Parents’ and teachers’ digital skills also matter!

Empowering students and children with digital skills is only the beginning. Building a safe support network for them is crucial – from caring and informed parents to skilled teachers. It’s worth noting that globally, digital skills training for teachers still needs to be widely available. An analysis of the 211 GEM Report’s PEER country profiles on technology in education indicates that only 21% of countries explicitly incorporate online safety into their teacher training programs. In Australia, the eSafety Commissioner is making significant progress by providing valuable information on application features that can increase exposure to content-related risks, and equipping teachers with resources to combat the issue of cyberbullying.

The level of parental awareness and engagement in supervising their children online interactions plays a pivotal role in shaping adolescents’ responsible and appropriate behaviour when utilizing digital technologies. Countries address the need to enhance parents’ digital skills, promote a balanced approach to technology-mediated parenting, and encourage active involvement in fostering their children’s digital skills, as the 2023 GEM Report, Technology in education: A tool on whose terms?, highlighted. These approaches encompass distributing digital devices with essential internet safety components (in New Zealand), offering guidance and kits for cyber wellness, implementing parental controls and navigation tools (in Singapore), and actively engaging parents in overseeing their children’s digital skills via mobile phone participation (in Senegal).

Parents also take proactive steps in the battle against cyberbullying to ensure their children’s safety and well-being online. In 2022, a groundbreaking court decision in the United Kingdom set a significant precedent by holding social media algorithms responsible for the tragic outcome of Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl. The foundation established by Molly’s parents actively advocates adopting the Online Safety Bill in the UK, which aims to minimize young people’s exposure to harmful content and hold social media platforms accountable for protecting them from various risks. In August 2023, the parents of Marie, a 15-year-old who tragically passed away, also lodged a formal complaint against the social media platform TikTok.

As technology continues to advance, so too must the required efforts to protect individuals from cyberbullying. On this International day against violence and bullying at school, including cyberbullying, we again emphasize the importance of implementing policies and practices that best suit each country’s context to promote digital skills among students, teachers, and parents, enabling them to recognize and address cyberbullying effectively.


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