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How encouraging children to support each other could help reduce cyberbullying

On Safer Internet Day (6 February 2024), Dr Peter Macaulay, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby, explores how research is helping to shape new approaches to tackle the growing issue of cyberbullying.

By Dr Peter Macaulay - 5 February 2024

The growth of digital technology has brought with it an array of benefits, transforming the way we communicate with each other, making access to information much easier, and enhancing the way young people learn both within and outside the school environment. However, technology use also poses inherent risks and dangers, especially for children and young people.

Safer Internet Day is an annual event, usually on the first Tuesday of February, that promotes the responsible and positive use of digital technology, particularly the Internet. The day aims to raise awareness about online safety and encourage individuals, particularly young people, to use the internet in a secure and responsible manner.

Why do we need awareness days like Safer Internet Day? 

When young people use the internet, they increase their vulnerability to online harm. Online risks and dangers they can be vulnerable to include grooming, contact with strangers, pornography, sharing personal information, sexting, and cyberbullying. When it comes to online safety, our research at the University of Derby suggests that children think they know how to stay safe online but struggle to articulate strategies to remain safe. Therefore, more needs to be done to enhance children’s objective knowledge (what they actually know compared to what they think they know) regarding online safety.

Of particular concern is the rise of cyberbullying on social media, presenting additional challenges for young people as they navigate the detrimental impact of bullying online. The recent Ofcom (2023) report found that three in ten children aged 8-17 had experienced cyberbullying, and the most common way for children to be bullied was on social media and messaging apps.

Cyberbullying is an intentional, repeated form of aggression via digital technology where the victim often feels defenceless. It is a unique form of bullying as perpetrators can more easily conceal their identity when they target their victims, and victims can be bullied online with no restriction to location or time. Our research at the University suggests that cyberbullying is an escalating public health concern. It affects nearly two in five children, with those involved experiencing an increase in mental health issues including depression, anxiety, loneliness, substance use, and in worst cases, suicide. As consequences associated with cyberbullying often spill into the school environment, a focus on schools is an effective way to reach and educate large numbers of children at a time.

What can we do to prevent cyberbullying and promote online safety? 

Encouraging children to support each other to raise awareness, prevent cyberbullying and promote online safety is an effective strategy that we are investigating.

Our research team has developed the Cross-Age Teaching Zone intervention (CATZ). This is a unique student-led anti-bullying intervention that combines two core components: co-operative group work and cross-age teaching, with the aim of promoting children’s social, emotional and behavioural development. CATZ invites older students to design a lesson over a period of four to five weeks (approximately one hour per week in the classroom), which is then delivered to younger students.

Teachers take no active part, and the intervention is implemented by facilitators from our research team. More than 2,000 primary and secondary school aged children have experienced the CATZ intervention, and our research has shown its effectiveness in promoting anti-bullying beliefs, enhancing children’s online safety and knowledge of online risks, and in increasing self-esteem and disclosure of bullying.

The CATZ intervention is effective with children from both primary and secondary educational levels and has a high level of social validity - students see the intervention as a useful, acceptable, and effective way to teach other students about anti-bullying beliefs and online safety. Our work also suggests that students would prefer older students to teach them about cyberbullying and online safety compared to their teachers. This is because they found other students presented this information in a more engaging way and with more empathy with the challenges being faced online. CATZ is a viable way for teachers to provide a platform for students to take a more active role in shaping their anti-bullying beliefs, and the intervention is effective for both groups of students – those providing the teaching and those receiving it.

Our results suggest that CATZ is an effective step in helping students learn about different types of online dangers and ways they can stay safe online. It is one solution in addressing the challenges of our digital world, but more can be done to further safeguard all children from the risks associated with internet use. For instance, collaborative support between different stakeholders will help more open communication on how to keep children safe online.    

If you would like further information on the CATZ initiative, or would like to discuss trialling it in your school, please contact Dr Peter Macaulay.

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About the author

Peter Macaulay wearing a white Lacoste t-shirt, smiling.

Dr Peter Macaulay
Senior Lecturer in Psychology

Peter is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology within the College of Health, Psychology, and Social Care. Peter primarily teaches social and developmental psychology. Peter's research focuses on cyberbullying, face-to-face bullying, online safety, and bystander intervention. 

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