School violence: Cyberbullying is a growing concern for safety and mental well-being

By: Yongfeng Liu and  Elodie Khavarani, UNESCO and Anna Cristina D’Addio, GEM Report

On the occasion of the International Day against violence and bullying at school including cyberbullying, it is important to recognize the strong links between school violence, mental health and learning outcomes, as they are increasingly worrying and unmistakable.

What do we know about school violence and mental health?

Schools are meant to be safe and supportive environments for children. But numbers paint a different picture: one in three learners is bullied at school every month globally. Over 36% of learners experience a physical fight with their peers and almost one in three has been physically attacked at least once in a year.

School violence can have severe and long-lasting impacts on learners’ safety, physical and mental health, and their education outcomes. Evidence from UNESCO and partners shows that poor mental health and well-being contribute to underachievement, absenteeism, disruptive classroom behaviour, suspension and expulsion from school and school dropout.

The effects on mental health were exacerbated during COVID-19 induced school shutdowns. Children who are bullied are twice as likely to feel lonely, to be unable to sleep and to have contemplated suicide according to a UNESCO report. A child aged between 10-19 takes their own life about every 11 minutes at present according to UNICEF.

Cyberbullying, a form of school violence

According to the 2023 GEM Report on Technology in Education, the growing use of digital devices in and out of education has also exacerbated cyberbullying.

The global education goal has multiple different targets within it, one of which (4.a) tracks the percentage of students that have experienced bullying in the past 12 months. Cyberbullying is a new form of bullying behaviour, which is fueled by access to smartphones and other devices. It takes various forms, such as the deliberate publication of photos or videos of individuals without their consent, exclusion from digital groups, verbal violence and insults and threats. It is prevalent, and yet countries have not as yet put in place sufficient protections to help children navigate the risks.

One of the ways we monitor the extent to which children are experiencing cyberbullying is with the global Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), which in 2019 asked children in grades 4 and grade 8 about their experiences with online bullying.  In nearly all countries, at least 10% of grade 4 students had experienced cyberbullying in the past year, defined as having received ‘nasty or hurtful messages’, ‘nasty or hurtful things’ or ‘embarrassing photos’ online. The 2023 GEM report found that the share of students who have experienced cyberbullying is even higher among grade 8 students:  affecting over 20% of students in 26 out of the 32 countries with available data.

Cyberbullying also tends to be higher in countries where other forms of bullying are common. In Latvia and South Africa, where 30% and 50% of students experienced cyberbullying, respectively, around 90% of students experienced some type of bullying. You can have a look where your country stands on rates of all forms of bullying on page 398 in the 2023 GEM Report statistical tables here.

How can we protect our children and their learning?

Because of its impact on learning, school violence is not only a rights issue, but also carries significant costs for education systems if left unaddressed. According to UNESCO, children who are frequently bullied are nearly three times more likely to feel like an outsider at school and more than twice as likely to miss school. They also have worse educational outcomes, scoring lower in mathematics and reading. The more often they are bullied, the worse their score.

One way to protect children from this growing phenomenon is to bring in legislation on the issue. Analysing our PEER country profiles on regulations in place on technology in education, we found that only 16% of countries currently have adopted legislation to prevent and act on cyberbullying with a focus on education; of those, 38% did so since the COVID-19 pandemic.

One complication often found when anything legal comes attached is how it ends up being defined. Most countries do not explicitly define cyberbullying and online abuse as a distinct offence, for example, so it is often found under other laws. The 2022 Personal Data Protection Act is the first comprehensive data protection law in Indonesia. It calls upon public or private entities that handle personal data to ensure data protection, with sanctions applied for mishandling. Protection against cyberbullying is indirectly provided under the Act. However, Article 45B of the amended 2008 Electronic Information and Transactions Law considers cyberbullying a form of harassment.

In India, the Information Technology Act can be considered a legal basis for dealing with cyberbullying. It prescribes punishment for sending annoying, offensive and insulting communication through digital and information communication technology. Cyberbullying could also fall under the Penal Code if it involves offences such as defamation, blackmail, sexual harassment, stalking or words, gestures and acts intended to ‘insult the modesty of a woman’. However, no special protection is granted to children under those laws.

Provide guidance

Outside of laws, other armor Ministries can draw from include policies, strategies, or plans on the issue to demonstrate leadership. Our PEER profiles found that about 40% of countries have such guidance in place. Europe and Northern America is the region with the highest share of countries – 61% – with such a policy.  Many countries take the approach of focusing on awareness-raising, reporting mechanisms and digital risk interventions, usually at the school level. These seem to be effective. A systematic review and meta-analysis of interventions in selected, mostly high-income countries estimated that the average programme has a 73% chance of reducing cyberbullying victimization.

Other policy tactics being used to protect children’s wellbeing online concern restrictions on smartphone use in schools, which are being implemented in a flurry since the 2023 GEM Report highlighted countries that had such policies in place already and benefits to learning that might be gained as a result. Morocco has gone a step further on this, also banning any photos or film being taken in school, and of teachers, in a bid to help prevent online images being used in a malevolent manner.

Empower young people to protect themselves.

Another tactic outside of building walls with policies and legislation is to equip children and teachers with the ability to protect themselves.  Here again, our PEER country profiles showed that 46% of countries appear to have identified digital skills standards for learners in a framework, policy, plan or strategy. More than 20 European countries have used the DigComp framework as a foundation for developing strategies, education programmes and assessment tools, within which skills to protect health and well-being, including protecting oneself and others from possible dangers in digital environments (eg. Cyberbullying) are included.

While digital technology offers excellent opportunities for teaching and learning, it also comes with increased exposure to key risks: cybersecurity and violation of privacy through data misuse; the mental and physical health implications of issues including lengthy screen time and cyberbullying; and harmful content, with the potential long-term impact on addictive behaviour, violence and sexual exploitation. Empowering students to stay safe, be responsible online and make smart choices are therefore important policy priorities we should take seriously as technology becomes ever more present in our everyday lives.

 In 2019, 193 UNESCO Member States unanimously established the International Day against Violence and Bullying at School Including Cyberbullying, recognizing that school-related violence in all its forms is an infringement of children and adolescents’ rights to health and to education. School violence is widespread, can be physical, psychological and sexual and include gender-based violence, bullying and cyberbullying. This year, UNESCO calls to end violence and promote good mental health in schools to ensure learners learn and thrive in safe and supportive spaces.

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