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Breaking the Cyberbullying Cycle: Empathy, Self-Love and A Kinder World

Updated: Feb 2

“It is crucial to approach cyberbullying cases among children with empathy and a focus on breaking the cycle of harm.”

In discussing the highly relevant topic of cyberbullying, Professor Yang Hwajin, Associate Professor of Psychology in Singapore Management University (SMU), highlighted the detrimental effects of cyberbullying on our children’s development. Principally, Professor Yang noted the negative effects it can have not only on the victims of bullying, but also on the bullies themselves. While much attention has been rightfully directed towards the victims, this article aims to shed light on the multifaceted consequences of cyberbullying — not only on the victims, but on the bullies who perpetrate these actions as well. Being a mother of three and a Developmental Psychology professor in SMU since 2007, Professor Yang has garnered valuable insights and experiences when it comes to traversing the tricky path of parenting and adolescence. 

As we know, bullying is an age-old societal issue, beginning in the playground and often progressing to the workplace. It may be defined as aggressive behaviours that are repeated over time and are intentionally harmful and occur without provocation. Bullying can be physical or verbal — and in the technological age of today, cyber. Common methods include derogatory texts, comments, emails sent to the target, or embarrassing videos posted online to invite mocking and effectively humiliating the target. However, Professor Yang noted that cyberbullying can also take the form of creating fake social media accounts or emails to impersonate and harm the target’s reputation, or deliberately exclude one from online games, chats, or social circles. Prominently, unwanted sexual solicitation and sharing sexual images or videos of the target without their consent (with the goal of humiliating or blackmailing) also constitutes cyberbullying. Adolescents, in particular, are vulnerable to cyberbullying due to their heavy reliance on technology for communication and social interaction. Moreover, this is heavily moderated by the need to belong —  a powerful, fundamental, and extremely pervasive motivation for emotions and behaviours. Especially for adolescents, having to navigate through the challenge of maturation, social interactions and connections are highly significant and desirable. This renders them more susceptible to the malicious effects of cyberbullying.

Why do victims of bullying sometimes resort to bullying others?

Research has found that a large proportion of adolescents involved in cyberbullying have not only been bullied, but also have resorted to bullying others. In understanding that some bullies were victims themselves, Professor Yang imparts that it is crucial to approach these cases with “empathy and a focus on breaking the cycle of harm”. Significantly, she notes that early intervention is key which is to start by identifying signs of bullying tendencies:

  • Trouble with authority figures: emotional dysregulation can lead to outbursts and bullying behaviour

  • A need for control or dominance: excessively competitive or overly preoccupied with social status

  • Impulsive: failure to think before acting, breaking rules

  • Positive views of violence: studies have shown links between violent media with decreased sensitivity to others’ suffering and increase in aggressive behaviour

  • Hot temper: excessive anger issues may signal a more serious mental health condition

  • Smooth talkers: manipulative and controlling tendencies, having a knack for talking their way out of difficult situations

  • History of being bullied: some try to regain a sense of control by bullying others

Professor Yang also noted that lower self-esteem is notable in both victims as well as bullies, while studies have shown that both victims and bullies are significantly more likely to have higher levels of depression. With that said, it is evident that those who bully also suffer from a myriad of mental health troubles. Significantly, a question we posed was: Having been bullied before, why bully others while knowing what it feels like?

Professor Yang stated that that is exactly why we must practise empathy instead of placing the blame on these children. Providing mental health support for both victims and bullies alike are highly important, and involving parents and promoting peer support and bystander intervention can empower children to address bullying more effectively. Citing the cycle of violence (abuse) hypothesis, Professor Yang posited that individuals who were victimised may turn to bullying others after feeling the need to regain a sense of control over their lives, adopting a defence mechanism of ‘it’s either me or them’, having learned that bullying is an effective way to exert power, control, or dominance over others. Some may subconsciously find themselves stuck in a loop, reenacting their traumatic experiences — but this time, as the aggressor. This behaviour can be a response to the powerlessness they felt as victims, and so they now unknowingly seek to assert dominance over others to overcome the emotional scars left by their own experiences. While this is not in any way excusing the actions of the bullies, it is  apparent that breaking the toxic cycle of bullying is the only way to help our children. We can do this by creating a positive school (and home) culture that values inclusivity and respect, notes Professor Yang, along with long-term monitoring, which helps to ensure safer environments for all children.

What if the bully is a Friend?

While not every bullying victim becomes a bully, the effects on individuals targeted by cyberbullying are still significant. Research has shown that certain cyberbullying victims may endure long-lasting trauma and experience a profound shift in their personalities and values. Such effects may even be carried into their adulthood. Furthermore, both bullies and victims of cyberbullying cases may experience physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, headache, stomachache, and sleep disturbance. Mental disruptions such as depression and anxiety, and even the escalation to self harm or suicidal attempts are also possible impacts of cyberbullying on our children. Due to the online nature of cyberbullying, it is challenging for individuals to halt such behaviour since internet activities are difficult to control, and one cannot completely disconnect from them. 

Counterintuitively, a cyberbully can be a friend of the victim, and such harm caused by a friend is much worse compared to that of an acquaintance or a stranger. Professor Yang emphasised that if a friend is the aggressor, it is crucial for the victim to comprehend the motives behind the friend’s actions and to establish clear boundaries – both for acceptable online behaviours and within the confines of their friendship. If the bullying persists, the next step is to seek help from parents, school, or relevant authorities.

While it is challenging, children must be reminded to assess their friendship with the bullies, and distance themselves from friends who refuse to change and persist in causing harm to them. According to Professor Yang, “Cyberbullying from a friend can take the form of gaslighting.” This can lead children to experiencing self-doubt and feeling inferior in comparison to others. 

Additionally, children can be profoundly affected by their past experiences with cyberbullying, which might hinder their ability to socialise and make friends with others as they grow older due to the fear of being bullied again. This avoidance of social interactions and the outside world can significantly impact their mental and physical well-being. As such, honing the ability to recognize the importance of one’s own well-being is paramount.

What can schools do?

Despite enduring such profound pain, many opt to suffer in silence, doubting that speaking out would alter their circumstances. Some individuals might also fear that things could get worse because of how their parents or the schools could have reacted. However, discussing the bullying experience is crucial and highly effective. Consequently, the onus of implementing effective strategies lies with both parents and schools, and requires a multi-faceted approach. 

According to Professor Yang, it is generally more helpful to have open conversations about bullying rather than keeping things hidden, “especially when the bullying is severe and poses immediate physical or psychological harm.” By speaking up, the victims will have more chances of getting support and protection from adults. Here are some specific and effective interventions that schools can implement: 

  1. Provide immediate psychological support to the victims and establish clear policies against cyberbullying, doing so can help to create a safe and supportive environment for the students. 

  2. Educate students about cyberbullying — what cyberbullying is, how to identify it, and what to do if they are being cyberbullied or witness someone else being cyberbullied. Ie.  various anti-cyberbullying programs. 

  3. Monitor students’ online activity, put in place certain social media guidelines within the school community. Ie. using school-issued devices and filtering school networks. 

  4. Prompt investigations on bullying-related cases to prevent secondary victimisation.

  5. Collaborate with parents. Work with parents to educate them about cyberbullying and to develop a plan for addressing cyberbullying incidents. 

What can parents do? 

However, there are instances when children perceive that the school might not be capable of effectively addressing the situation. In these situations, alternative sources such as professional psychological support and law enforcement can be sought. Above all, parents represent the safest and most immediate support for our children. Therefore, how should parents respond to instil a sense of security in their children? 

Professor Yang has suggested the following crucial pointers that parents can do to help: 

1. Maintaining Objectivity and Providing Reassurance 

It is understandable for parents to hope that their children will never be involved in a cyberbullying case. However, it is important to remain objective and avoid making judgemental statements about our children’s experiences. Instead, we should reassure our children that we will always support them and we are deeply concerned about their well-being

2. Remain Composed and Empathetic 

Upon discovering our children’s involvement in a cyberbullying case, parents should remain composed, empathetic, and practise open communication and active listening to understand the situation and find suitable solutions.

3. Provide Continual Emotional Support 

It is essential to consistently offer emotional support to our children and remain open-minded, being willing to seek professional help if necessary.

4. Monitor & Supervise Children’s Activities 

Certainly, we should make a conscientious effort to monitor and supervise our children’s physical and online activities. Simultaneously, it’s vital to respect their boundaries to avoid intruding upon their privacy.

5. Evaluate The Situation 

  • If the child is a victim, it is important to collect evidence of the bullying 

  • If the child is an observer, parents should promptly report the incident to the school or relevant authorities, ensuring our children’s safety while teaching conflict resolution skills.

  • If the child is the aggressor, we must remain composed and empathetic. Engaging in open communication and active listening to comprehend the motives behind their child’s actions is essential. Maintaining a constructive, blame-free environment is essential to initiate positive changes in our children’s behaviour.

6. Fostering a Conducive Atmosphere  

Regardless of the situation our children find themselves in, parents should refrain from blaming or shaming our children to foster a conducive atmosphere for constructive dialogue. 

Additionally, blaming on external factors, hastily seeking solutions, solely resorting to punishment, or isolating our children can worsen the situation instead of addressing the underlying issue. The key to resolving these challenges lies in a swift yet balanced approach, offering support and education to assist children in navigating these difficulties. 

Looking forward, inaction and ignorance can exacerbate the effects of cyberbullying in drastic and detrimental ways. Though it is crucial to consider the specific and unique circumstances of each cyberbullying case in deciding whether to speak out about it or to keep it quiet, Professor Yang asserts that in general, it is better to speak out especially when the harm dealt is severe. When cyberbullying goes unaddressed, it sends a clear, strong message to both bullies and their victims that this behaviour is acceptable and can go unpunished. This in turn emboldens the bullies, which may encourage them to escalate their harassments or target more victims after seeing no consequences for their actions. Comparatively, this exacerbates the victims’ feelings of isolation and suffering, leading them to believe that no one cares for their well-being. If we were to idle, the future impact this may cause when these children become contributing members of society may be detrimental. While some bullies and victims may grow into contributing, empathetic adults, others may continue their harmful behaviour or face legal consequences for their actions. However, we do acknowledge the potential for inappropriate actions taken by the external party, which might worsen the situation. This challenge can be addressed by ensuring that parents and schools are educated on the correct actions to take. As Professor Yang posited, interventions, support, and guidance for personal growth play crucial roles in determining the long-term outcomes of both victims and bullies.

Author Dan Pearce once said, “People who love themselves, don’t hurt other people. The more we hate ourselves, the more we want others to suffer.”

When we understand that self-love is the foundation of empathy and kindness, we can unlock the potential to foster a society full of people who genuinely care. As we strive to develop self-compassion and acceptance within ourselves, we naturally extend that love to others, forging connections, understanding, and cooperating towards a brighter world where love and compassion prevail.

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