Since the early years of the 21st century, the use of online social media networks has increased dramatically. Due to the ever-expanding world of online social networking, much of today’s daily social interactions have been assimilated into popular social media networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. This new virtual platform has provided people with a global interconnectivity and social interaction avenue. In the physical world, people do not always get along. Discrimination and bullying are common occurrences in the workplace, school or within/between certain social groups. However, this can more easily be regulated and tamed through public and private programmes and disciplinary measures. In the online world, however, due to the anonymity the online world caters to and provides for, online bullying and discrimination often occur with little or no sanction. Hence, these interactions, whether good or bad, have become unbounded and unreserved due to the exaggerated nature of online interactions. Mostly, it is regulated by community guidelines or terms of service drafted by the social media platforms themselves (E.g. Facebook, Twitter, etc).
However, it can be deduced that these measures are inadequate to combat cyberbullying. Cases of cyberbullying are prevalent in the modern world. Especially amongst teenagers. As opposed to traditional bullying, which refers to physical face-to-face bullying where the perpetrator often uses advantages in physical strength and/or social standing to harass the victim, occurring in specific interactive environments (school, workplace, etc). Cyberbullying is an electronic form of bullying. The anonymity is the bully’s power. There is no limit to where it could reach the victim.1
The empirical realities of cyberbullying
The vast amount of studies conducted on the statistical and psychological effects and realities of cyberbullying, particularly with young people, has produced results indicating different causes and possible solutions to this problem.
The exaggerated and unreserved nature of cyberbullying has established unique psychological effects. Negative symptoms are experienced by victims, particularly among younger generations. In general, victims of bullying experience a disconnect from school, a lack of control over their lives, increased levels of depression and anxiety, few or no friends, low self-esteem, and develop poor psychosocial conditions.2 Consequently, this leads to a maladjusted lifestyle. 15% of victims of bullying in their youth lack the psychological suitability to find adequate jobs and form healthy relationships as adults. However, studies have been done on the effects of cyberbullying specifically. Statistically, 62% of students, who were victims of cyberbullying, found it hard to concentrate on schoolwork. 5% of learners expressed that this was due to the constant thoughts of the bully and the bullying itself. Absenteeism is another side effect of cyberbullying. Some victims have reported staying absent for fear of being bullied. Cyberbullying results in an increased propensity to become the perpetrator of cyberbullying, symptoms of depression and emotional anguish compared to traditional bullying.3
Another side effect documented by psychological studies has been poor school conduct, with instances of weak connections with caregivers and students caught with weapons. Behavioural issues such as school violence, drug use, cheating and misbehaviour are also associated with the effects of cyberbullying. Observations such as these possibly demonstrate that the mental and emotional anguish caused by cyberbullying links with misfit coping behaviours.
The variable of gender differences
According to most studies, females are more likely to be the victim of cyberbullying than males,4 with more reports of cyberbullying experiences coming from females (33.1% compared to 29% of males).5 Alternatively, males are more likely to be the perpetrators of cyberbullying and traditional bullying.6 However, within South Africa, the notion that gender plays a significant role in demonstrating gender bias or predicting cyberbullying has no conclusive evidence. Some studies indicate that the variant of gender should be viewed as a moderating factor, as opposed to a defining or predicting factor.7 The study opens the door for a more objective approach to problem solving. Research has indicated that gender affects psychological determinants and behavioural symptoms of traditional bullying and cyberbullying. These factors show a particular correlation between past bullying experiences and age.
Studies regarding the meta-analysis of age as a moderating factor, have highlighted the importance of considering this variable in finding solutions to the societal issue of cyberbullying. It can be deduced that the propensity to commit acts of cyberbullying increases as children get older. Due to the lack of verbal and communication skills, children in earlier childhood tend to engage in traditional bullying, as physical aggression is more natural and known to them than verbal aggression. Once more verbal and indirect forms of aggression become known to children, as well as their technological skills develop, instances of cyberbullying become more common. The highest rate of cyberbullying victimisation exists between the ages of 12 and 13 years old, as well as 13 to 14 years old. However, in South African schools, 11 to 12 years old children are the most likely to be victims of cyberbullying.
According to the Social Presence Theory, which relates to a child’s ability to extend their characteristics into the social environment and community of inquiry,8 the lack of awareness of cyberbullying and victimisation at early ages has possibly led to a gap in perceptions of those issues. Indicating that awareness of these issues should be increased in primary schools and in early adolescence, to reduce the increased likelihood of perpetration.
However, with regard to age, studies have shown that gender differences play a role in a child’s developmental inclination towards cyberbullying. Females are more likely to experience cyberbullying in early childhood, as opposed to males, who are more likely to experience cyberbullying during the latter years of their adolescence. According to theory, the contrast between the two genders results from different paces at which males and females mature physically and socially. Due to early maturation, females develop the necessary social skills, leaving them better equipped to engage in indirect aggressive behaviour. This increases the likelihood of them engaging in cyberbullying than males at an early age. Males, however, show an increased engagement in cyberbullying during later adolescence, after they had eclipsed females in this regard.
Concerning past bullying experiences, even though males are more likely to be physically aggressive, it has been documented that males who have been previously bullied, online, showed an increased tendency to engage in cyberbullying themselves. Perhaps males are more likely to respond aggressively and similarly to how they experienced bullying in the past. Additionally, males have increased levels of anger rumination than their gender counterparts. Anger rumination is the repetitive tendency to contemplate deeply about anger episodes. Anger rumination increases male chances of becoming online bullies themselves. Females who were victims of traditional bullying are more likely to engage in cyberbullying. Females are more likely to respond indirectly, which the anonymity of the online world provides for. Therefore, repetitive experiences of offline or online bullying could increase the likelihood of future perpetration and hostile behaviours. All of these factors highlight the variation of psychological characteristics in different genders.
Inferences from the data
These empirical social indicators theoretically suggest that to reduce the frequency of cyberbullying, one would need to direct prevention and intervention measures and strategies to middle school and high school students. It seems more prevalent among younger generations, due to their increased access to the online world. Inevitably, as they get older, they develop social inclinations to act aggressively online. Social and psychological programs creating awareness of cyberbullying, and its effects, should be put in place. Additionally, it provides psychological assistance for victims and perpetrators. We could use the symptoms and causes of traditional bullying as a platform to implement intervention strategies. Since children who experience bullying at an early age are more likely to engage in similar bullying themselves as they get older, it would seem increased awareness strategies and paediatric prevention should be considered for children between the ages of 10 and 12. Furthermore, this data can be utilised for a more gender-specific approach in implementing prevention methods to reduce the likelihood of cyberbullying or traditional bullying perpetration.
Such an approach would produce more effective results as gender differences play a moderating role in progressive adolescent social characteristics and when considering past bullying experiences of children. To yield effective results, a well-grounded legislative framework within which to operate would be required for these possible preventative measures to succeed.
The legal remedies available for children in South Africa
The South African Schools Act requires public schools to establish a code of conduct that sets the benchmark for students' behaviour, sanctions misconduct, promotes self-discipline and reciprocal respect, and does not explicitly mention bullying or cyberbullying. However, given the disruptive impact of cyberbullying on learning and school discipline, codes of conduct should incorporate cyberbullying into their regulatory jurisdiction. The Act would then provide guidelines for schools to address cyberbullying. It would be crucial to define cyberbullying and its applicability to disciplinary hearings in sections 12, 13, and 14 of the Act. Schools may need to consider jurisdiction issues in holding a disciplinary hearing for cyberbullying if it occurred outside of school.
The Children's Act seeks to protect children from abuse, neglect, and maltreatment, always acting in their best interests. According to the Constitutional Court in S v M, the best interest of the child must balance with society's interests. The Act promotes regulatory frameworks based on reconciliation rather than pure punishment, requiring a balance between the perpetrator's accountability and absolving the victim of any physical, emotional, or psychological harm. Section 110 outlines the purpose of social workers in counselling and aiding children in instances of abuse, including online abuse, and instituting court proceedings. The Act's role in combatting cyberbullying is to provide a support structure for child victims and offenders, but it lacks legal clarity on bullying and cyberbullying. The absence of social workers in governmental and non-governmental social development institutions impairs service delivery and the Act's provisions' overall implementation.
The Child Justice Act creates a special avenue of criminal justice for children, preferring rehabilitation over punishment when sentencing children, a restorative approach to juvenile justice. Cyberbullying could be included in the general act of bullying as a crime in the ambit of juvenile justice, as it inflicts emotional and psychological damage similar to traditional bullying. Schedule 1 of the Act includes offences like assault and defamation, which could apply to cyberbullying. However, schools should deal with cyberbullying as misconduct through disciplinary hearings, and the Act would help rehabilitate children who engage in criminal behaviour associated with traditional and online bullying tendencies.
Parents and schools need to be aware of these legal principles to avoid stripping bullies of the opportunity to take advantage of social and counselling services. Schools should communicate with child justice courts, Child and Youth Care Centres, One-Stop Child Justice Centres, and governmental departments, with an obligation to do so. Rural areas may face resource shortages. Resources should be progressively made available to promote a community-based approach to solving the issue.
If a single distinct statute is drafted regarding bullying and/or cyberbullying, it must be as evidence-informed as possible. Therefore, accurately identifying and regulating the nuances of this modern social obstacle. Due to how the variant of age plays a crucial role in reducing acts of cyberbullying, legislation should be more precise and comprehensive with specific rules relating to age groups that are either more or less vulnerable to cyberbullying and traditional bullying.
1 Payne A, Van Belle JP ‘The Nature and Impact of Cyberbullying and Cyber-harassment in South African Schools’ (accessed 11 March 2020).
2 Farhangpour P, Maluleke C, Mutshaeni H.N., ‘Emotional and academic effects of cyberbullying on students in a rural high school in the Limpopo province, South Africa’ (2019) SAJIM.
3 Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention Issue Paper 13 Cyber bullying in South Africa: Impact and responses (2012).
4 Foody M, Mcguire L, Kuldas S, Norman J.O. ‘Friendship Quality and Gender Differences in Association With Cyberbullying Involvement and Psychological Well-Being’ (accessed 8 March 2020).
5 Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention Issue Paper 8 Inescapable violence: Cyberbullying and electronic violence against young people in South Africa (2009).
6 Zsila A, Urban R, Griffiths M.D., Demetrovics Z ‘Gender Differences in the Association Between Cyberbullying Victimization and Perpetration: The Role of Anger Rumination and Traditional Bullying Experiences’ (accessed 9 March 2020).
7 Barlett C, Coyne S.M. ‘A Meta‐Analysis of Sex Differences in Cyber‐Bullying Behavior: The Moderating Role of Age’ (accessed 10 March 2020).
8 The Community of Inquiry ‘Description: Social Presence’ (accessed 9 March 2020).