Cyberbullying & how it affects children with autism

As we rapidly advance technologically, bullying is shifting from the playground to online. Tweens and teenagers are online now more than ever and ‘online communication’ is now a major form of communication for adolescents. This unfortunately opens up opportunities for cyberbullying. Laura Driver, a representative of LVS Ascot, a private school in Berkshire shares more information about this worrying trend, and what this means for our children. Over to Laura…

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that involves technology and takes place over social media, smartphones, computers, laptops, E-Mails, text messages and online apps, using them as tools and weapons. However, the term applies only to minors and is termed ‘cyber-harassment’ instead, when it happens to adults. Cyberbullying effects are damaging and destructive, leading to psychological, emotional and physical stress. If cyberbullied, children are more likely to experience a drop in grades, self esteem issues, anxiety, depression, fear, humiliation and suicidal thoughts.

Cyberbullying incidents typically involve girls more often than boys and take many different forms as shown by the following cyberbullying terms:

  • Harassment: Unsolicited advancements, abusive, embarrassing or threatening messages, text wars/text attacks and ganging up online against the child and causing emotional distress.
  • Exclusion: Tweens and teens want to be recognised by their peers and exclusion is a highly-effective tactic where the child is purposefully excluded online, in order to make them feel worthless.
  • Impersonation: Masquerading, Frape (a portmanteau of Facebook and rape and is when someone takes over your social media account and pretends to be you), catfishing (luring someone into a fake relationship through impersonation), setting up an online account pretending to be the victim and posting offensive things online, and stealing the victim’s online login details and saying things to offend their friends and acquaintances.
  • Denigration: Occurs when cyberbullies post nasty rumours, false statements and gossip about someone online, with the purpose of destroying their reputation.
  • Cyberstalking: This takes harassment up to the level of threatening and involves stalking someone online. The victim may start to worry that it will lead to real stalking.
  • Flaming: This is similar to trolling and is a hostile online interaction or argument with insults or profanity, with the intention of eliciting an angry response.
  • Outing: The public reveal or forwarding of personal communication such as Facebook messages, E-Mails or text messages.
  • Trickery/Manipulation: gaining their trust and then publicly revealing secrets/embarrassing information (hoodwinking), pretending to be someone else (impersonation).
  • Photographs and videos: Taking photographs of the child in a locker room for example, happy-slapping (filming an incident of a child getting attacked and then posting it online to circulate it/sending the video to others).
  • Porn/Marketing Insertion: Gaining access to a child’s email address and signing them up for pornography, thereby getting them into trouble with their parents.
    This list of cyberbullying examples above is not exhaustive and children with special needs are more vulnerable to it and have a higher risk of being bullied and cyber-bullied. Children with autism for example, may need additional support to know whether someone is joking or bullying. The National Autistic Society states that due to communication impairments, autistic children on the spectrum may not truly understand they are being bullied and may copy the acts of bullies. Some children that are bullied, start to bully others too, out of learned behaviour or to try and make themselves feel better. Some autistic children may become frustrated at being left out of social situations (whether through bullying or by accident) and try to force children to become friends with them.

    Cyberbullying statistics show that 34% of students have experienced cyberbullying and each year amongst young people, there are roughly 4,400 deaths each year caused by bullying. When it comes to cyberbullying laws, there is little legislation in place. Cyberbullying is a relatively new crime as it involves technology such as using smartphones and social media which has only been around the last decade or so. But, there’s plenty that schools (including special needs schools) can do to prevent and manage cyberbullying. Having an anti-bullying policy in place, with cyberbullying education is a great place to start.

    Teresa Gold, E-Safety Administrator at private school Windsor LVS Ascot (which also has two SEN schools LVS Hassocks and LVS Oxford) says that:

    “LVS advises students that when sharing and collaborating online, they should consider the importance of treating communications with the same care they would a face-to-face conversation. As well as knowing how to manage their own behaviour, they are given opportunities to provide guidance and advice to their peers and younger pupils. The use of mobile phones during the school day is restricted to allow a focus on learning and face-to-face communication with friends. LVS strives to create an ethos of respect and consideration for all, both in the real and online worlds through policies and practices within the pastoral and curriculum programmes. LVS take all instances of bullying extremely seriously and there is no tolerance of any type of bullying, including cyberbullying. Any pupils found doing so receive one of the school’s most serious sanctions, decided by the Principal. While all bullying is dealt with through the Anti-Bullying Policy, there is a recognition of the increased use of technologies in this area and the implications of this.”

    No doubt, managing cyberbullying is not easy. Restricting mobile and internet access for adolescents is not the way to go about it, as the bullying can still take place. As technology progresses, along with the popularity of ‘online communication’, educating adolescents about the dangerous effects of cyberbullying, especially towards those with special needs such as autism is the best way forward.

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