Tackling Cyberbullying on WhatsApp classroom groups
WhatsApp, the most popular messaging app, is a hotbed of bullying. Keep reading to learn what you can do if your teen is being bullied on this platform.
By Dr. Debarati Halder and Dr. Meghna Singhal • 13 min read
Situation 1: Megha reported to her teacher that a student was troubling her friend in class. When she reached home that evening, she found 35 angry WhatsApp messages. The cruel messages kept coming, some from unknown numbers.
Situation 2: Ninth-graders Akash and Sid get into a nasty verbal exchange in their class WhatsApp group. Insults and swear words start flying, and later, Akash threatens Sid and tells him to “watch out” at school the next day.
Situation 3: Eighth-grader Rohan is overweight. A classmate posts a meme in a WhatsApp group, poking fun at “fat” boys. Rohan’s name gets pulled in the joke and everyone starts teasing him. The jokes start spilling into their everyday interactions, and Rohan, tired of the teasing, quits the group.
All these situations describe different forms of cyberbullying, or bullying that happens online—in these instances, in class WhatsApp groups. WhatsApp messaging is quite popular among students because of its ease of use and reach. Also, it enables students to stay in touch with family and friends, exchange information related to school or studies and have discussions. But unfortunately, the platform is also being used for bullying.
Bullying has always been a serious, long-standing social problem, and today, it happens both in the real world and in the digital world. Cyberbullying involves using technology to insult, threaten, harass or embarrass another person. It also includes posting offensive messages or photos, bullying a person directly by sending hurtful messages or spreading rumors about a person. Cyberbullying, just like physical or verbal bullying, involves a real or perceived imbalance of physical, psychological or social power between the perpetrator and the target.
Earlier, if a person was being bullied, only a few people would know about it. Now, with bullying happening in WhatsApp groups, everyone can see who is being bullied and even join in.
Forms of WhatsApp Cyberbullying
Let’s examine some common forms of cyberbullying in class WhatsApp groups and how they can lead to the target adolescents feeling victimized:
1. Harassment: Sending mean, nasty, insulting messages targeting a person repeatedly.
EXAMPLE: Situation 1, in which Megha receives over 35 angry messages.
2. Denigration: Damaging a person’s reputation by posting false news or gossip about them in group chats.
EXAMPLE: Some bullies target a particular student and make everyone in the group believe that the student scored the lowest marks in the group.
3. Flaming: Fighting online by exchanging angry, nasty or obscene messages or posts.
EXAMPLE: Situation 2, in which Akash and Sid send angry and nasty messages to each other.
4. Impersonation: Pretending to be someone else online in order to solicit or post personal or false information about someone.
EXAMPLE: Sheila poses as a boy online and starts communicating with her friend Veena and pretends to like her. Soon after, Veena begins to trust her “new boyfriend” and reveals to “him” a lot of personal information. Sheila then posts the details in the class WhatsApp group and completely embarrasses Veena.
5. Trickery: Also called outing, it entails tricking someone into revealing secrets and embarrassing information and then publishing them online, with the aim of damaging the victim’s friendships or reputation.
EXAMPLE: Venu receives a WhatsApp message informing him that he has been selected to participate in a singing competition and he should send a video of himself singing. He promptly shares a video of himself singing. Next day, at school, he sees everyone watching his video, mimicking and making fun of him.
6. Exclusion: Intentionally or cruelly excluding someone from WhatsApp groups.
EXAMPLE: Reena is considered “uncool” because she’s always reading in the library and is not into dressing “fashionably.” Her peers exclude her from their WhatsApp groups and don’t “friend” her on social media.
7. Bias-based bullying: Like traditional bullying, cyberbullying can also target a person’s characteristics, differences or perceived weaknesses. This bias-based bullying refers to threats directed toward a target’s race, ethnicity, religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, age, familial status or disability (physical or mental). However, it’s important to note that teens with no noticeable “differences” may also be cyberbullied. So, no one’s completely immune from cyberbullying.
EXAMPLE: Situation 3, in which Rohan is fat-shamed.
Cyberbullying has devastating effects on the psychological well-being of adolescents. Because of repeated assaults in such group chats, teens may experience negative emotions, negative academic achievement, school difficulties and depression. They may attempt suicide or harm themselves, drop out from school, engage in violent or delinquent behavior, have difficulties with peers, engage in unsafe sex practices or use substances like alcohol.
What to do when your teen is cyberbullied
Cyberbullying can have adverse effects on the physical and psychological well-being of the teen being bullied. If she is constantly checking text messages and social apps, it could be a sign she’s worried about what’s being said about her. Be on the lookout for the following signs:
- Changes in online behavior
- Changes in sleep or appetite
- Withdrawal and loneliness
- Losing interest in activities they previously enjoyed
- Trouble concentrating
- Decline in grades
- School refusal, resulting in lowered school attendance
- Helplessness or hopelessness
- Low confidence and self-esteem
- Frequent nightmares
- Sad, anxious or depressed
- Unexplained cuts or burns on arm or wrists
- Talking about death
What You Can Do
If your teen displays some or most of the above signs for more than two weeks, it’s a good idea to contact a mental health professional, such as a qualified clinical psychologist or a counselor, for assessment and intervention. Moreover, you should never blame your teen for joining the class group or continuing to be in the group, despite being targeted.
Help Your Teen Respond
It’s always important to involve your teen because they understand their school life and peers better than you do. So, their perspective is important in helping both of you figure out workable solutions. Also, when your teen is involved in brainstorming and implementing solutions, their self-esteem gets a boost and the control and dignity, which may have been stripped away by cyberbullying, are restored. Here are some ways to help your teen respond to cyberbullying. You can ask your teen to:
• Not respond or retaliate. Help your teen understand that sometimes a reaction is exactly what the bully is looking for. Such reactions make the bully feel empowered. So, sometimes it’s best not to respond to the nasty posts or comments. If your teen feels the need to respond, some humor can disarm or distract a person from bullying.
In Situation 1, where Megha is being harassed for standing up for her friend, she could just ignore the angry WhatsApp messages she received. Or, she could just post a message like this one on her social media site—“Finally we are all on the same page. We all know what ‘shame’ and ‘embarrassment’ feel like.”
• Save the evidence. The only advantage of cyberbullying is that the evidence—like photos and messages—can be captured by taking a screenshot. This can be saved and shown to someone who can help. Encourage your teen to save the evidence for any harassment that occurs online.
In Situation 3, Rohan was fat-shamed in the class WhatsApp group. He could save the screenshots of all the messages directed at him and complain to his teacher or escalate to the principal.
• Tell the person to stop. Teach your teen that being assertive is a good way to respond to uncomfortable situations. Many teens may not be comfortable asking the perpetrator to “stop.” It’s important for your teen to understand that being assertive and making one’s position clear will let the perpetrator know that she will not tolerate this kind of harassment anymore. Use role plays and discussions to help your teen practice being assertive and take a stand against bullying.
EXAMPLE: Venu’s parents could teach him to stand up for himself, be assertive and tell his peers who teased him about his singing that he doesn’t care about their opinions.
• Block and report. Discuss with your teen how he can block and report the perpetrator. However, when the harasser is a known student from your teen’s class or school, reporting or blocking may not be enough to stop the bullying. Find out about the school’s anti-bullying policy. Present all online evidence of the bullying (such as screenshots of chats and comments) to the school authorities. Brainstorm all possible ways to tackle the situation and choose a solution by consensus.
REMEMBER: Avoid involving the perpetrator’s parents—leave that to the school.
In Situation 2, as Akash and Sid are both friends, they can make an attempt to talk it out face to face and find a solution. Akash may have made the threat in anger with no real meaning attached to it. If it’s really a safety issue, it’s important for Sid to discuss it with his parents and report the threat to the school authorities to ensure his own safety.
If your teen is being cyberbullied, you can lend your support and let him understand you love and care for him no matter what. You need to make sure your teen feels safe and secure; that you can work together to take action to combat the bullying.
The Legal Aspects of Cyberbullying in India
Consider a scenario in which someone impersonates a person. The person may feel threatened, as the perpetrator has access to personal information, which if leaked can cause her huge embarrassment and possible damage to her reputation. But this understanding of threat is not regulated by our laws because it seems trivial to many lawmakers, jurists and prosecutors.
But the “threat” may become serious if it adversely affects the person being bullied—for example, if the person takes extreme steps like attempting or committing suicide. Some jurisdictions are, however, considering the effects of threat on the person being bullied. But the penalty may be milder.
Different stakeholders have tried to address cyberbullying from legal angles, but so far it has not been successfully regulated. However, various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860; the Information Technology Act, 2000 (or IT Act); and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO), 2012 can be used to fight against cyberbullying.
The situation becomes really challenging when there are no laws that specifically address cyberbullying. Often, school authorities take matters into their own hands and deal with them adversely—they may not listen to the teen being bullied and may even blame the teen for joining the WhatsApp groups. In certain cases, school authorities may suspend or even expel the student who is the bully. But that may not serve any purpose because the perpetrator may then become more revenge-minded. Hence, the best way to deal with the bully is to communicate with the bully and their parents, and make the family understand the nature of the mistake that the child has committed and explain the consequences.
Also, to prevent bullying, schools and parents should engage in workshops to raise awareness about cyberbullying.
In a nutshell
- Bullies are harassing their targets in class WhatsApp groups. Types of cyberbullying in group chats include harassment, flaming, impersonation, trickery, exclusion and bias-based bullying.
- Until the laws and policies with regard to cyberbullying in India become child-friendly, the entire onus is on the parents to be their teen’s guide and teach them how to respond to bullying.
- It’s a good idea to involve your teen in formulating a plan by brainstorming different options, in case he does face cyberbullying; it boosts his self-esteem and helps restore much of the control and dignity that have been stripped away.
- Schools and parents must engage in workshops to raise awareness about cyberbullying. They must also know about the scope of child welfare committees in this matter.
What you can do right away
- Have ongoing discussions about the conversations in your teen’s class WhatsApp groups.
- Gain your teen’s trust so that she shares with you what’s happening in the groups. Make sure that she doesn’t reply to any unwanted messages in a group, even if they’re posted by her trusted friend.
- In case of messages that are extremely harassing or flaming or defamatory, consider reporting the matter to the school, which must inform the parents of the bully about the online behavior of their teen.
About the authors:
Written by Dr. Debarati Halder and Dr. Meghna Singhal on 27 January 2020.
Dr. Halder is the Honorary Managing Director of the Centre for Cyber Victim Counselling. She is also working as Professor & Head of the Department of Research, United world School of Law, Karnavati University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and currently heads the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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