Cyberbullying at schools in South Africa – why it’s out of control and how to stop it

What is cybersecurity?

Cybersecurity is the means that an organisation takes to protect networks, programs and computers from digital attacks of any kind. Some types of cyberattacks include disabling or disrupting a business, trying to extort money from a company or organisation or searching for sensitive information to destroy it or share it widely online. Most companies or individuals have some form of cybersecurity installed on their computers or device, such as antivirus software. Even schools can become victims of cyberattacks, and they are sometimes ill-prepared as they may not have a dedicated IT department or budget allocated to cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity and schools

Schools can become a target for cybersecurity, with hackers attempting to access sensitive information, share malicious content, or disrupt the school’s day-to-day running. Schools need to have a strong firewall in place, which needs to be tested and monitored regularly.

As more schools move to a digital learning or hybrid model, the need to secure information and platforms becomes more important. Ransomware attacks could, for example, stop teaching and learning in its tracks. A secure network also tracks interactions between learners, meaning cases of cyberbullying can be identified and controlled. The importance of keeping school networks secure is also related to the need to protect children from potentially harmful content that could be racist, violent or sexually explicit.

What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying is bullying of a child by other children that occurs on a digital device such as a computer or smartphone. This bullying could happen on a social network, via instant or text message or in an online game. Platforms where often cyberbullying takes place also include online forums and email. Generally, cyberbullying occurs in a social environment, where children can view and share content or communicate. The actual form of cyberbullying could be a harmful or false message or the sharing of private information to embarrass a learner. Cyberbullying is wrong and, in some cases, could be illegal.

cyberbullying in South African schools

Effects of cyberbullying

Cyberbullying can cause emotional stress to the learner being bullied, leading to anxiety or depression. Depression is a severe illness that can affect the learners physical as well as mental health. This, in turn, can lead to issues around concentration and performance at school. In short, cyberbullying can cause a whole host of problems that could have serious long-term consequences for the learner.

Types of cyberbullying

There are several types of cyberbullying, including:

  • Flaming – an online fight via email or instant messages, which includes hurtful language or images to the person being bullied
  • Harassment – this involves sending threatening or rude message to a person and generally repeating this continuously.
  • Outing – sharing a person’s private information or images openly online
  • Exclusion – this involves deliberately leaving a person out of a group chat and then making offensive or insensitive comments about this person
  • Masquerading – this occurs when a bully creates a fake identity to harass or abuse someone anonymous, sending mean or false messages to the person being bullied

Advice to learners on how to act in cases of cyberbullying

  • Learners should do their best not to respond to cyberbullies as this is, in some cases, what they want. It is best if you can remove yourself from the situation or avoid the person doing the bullying.
  • It is never the victim of bullying’s fault – no one deserves to be treated in a mean or unpleasant manner.
  • One way to combat bullying is to bring it into the light by saving the evidence. Screenshot a conversation from an instant message or download images that have been sent to you. These can be reported to your teacher.
  • Reach out for help to your parent, teacher or councillor. It may feel like you are the only person going through this situation, but other learners have as well, and these grownups may have good advice for you.
  • Learn about how you can block or remove someone from your social media or instant messages. It is easy to do, and they won’t be able to harass you any longer.

The Cybersecurity Toolkit for Schools

The Department of Basic Education has put together a cybersecurity toolkit for schools. Dr Kiro Pillay, Head of the Cyber Security Hub, explained that “the objective of the initiative is to curb cyberbullying and threats to ensure that learners, parents and teachers are educated on matters of cyber safety.

To effectively raise cyber safety awareness, the topics are logically incorporated into the storyline consisting of five themes: a trip into cyber space; protecting people; securing devices; smart Apps; and helpful information. Each theme is, in turn, divided into a further three topics. The components include a series of workbooks, word searches, videos, games and cartoons in five languages.