Tackling Cyberbullying on WhatsApp classroom groups

As WhatsApp has gained popularity, it has also become the hotbed for cyberbullying. Read on to find out what you can do if your teen is being cyberbullied on her classroom WhatsApp groups.

By Dr. Debarati Halder and Dr. Meghna Singhal

Tackling Cyberbullying on WhatsApp classroom groups

Situation 1: Megha reported to the teacher that another student was troubling her friend in class. When Megha got home, she had 35 angry WhatsApp messages. The cruel anonymous messages kept coming, some from unknown numbers.

Situation 2: Ninth graders, Akash and Sid got into a nasty verbal exchange on their classroom WhatsApp group. Insults and swear words start to fly, which only get angrier and nastier. Akash threatens Sid and tells him to ‘watch out’ in school the next day.

Situation 3: Eight grader Rohan is of higher weight. A classmate posts a meme on his class WhatsApp group, poking fun at ‘fat’ boys. Rohan’s name gets pulled in the joke and everyone starts teasing him. The jokes start spilling to 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 on WhatsApp classroom groups. WhatsApp messaging may be unparalleled in its popularity, convenience of use and reach, enabling students to exchange information and have discussions, but it is also being used as a platform for bullying.

Bullying has always been a serious, long-standing social problem. Today, bullying happens both in the real world and in the digital world. Just like in physical or verbal bullying, cyberbullying involves a real or perceived power imbalance between the perpetrator and the target that may be physical, psychological, and/or social.

Cyberbullying may be manifested in gossiping, mocking, condemning, insulting, exposing lies, harassing, sharing offensive messages or photos, hateful posts or otherwise, commenting directly to or about the victim. WhatsApp messaging has opened up another window for bullying perpetrators to harass their targets. Previously, bullying happening to a target was known only to a limited number of people; now, with bullying happening on WhatsApp groups, it has been thrown open for all to see and join in.

Forms of WhatsApp Cyberbullying

Let us examine some common forms of cyberbullying on WhatsApp classroom groups and how they can lead to the target adolescents feeling victimised:

1. Harassment: Sending mean, nasty, insulting WhatsApp messages targeting a person repeatedly. Situation 1, in which Megha receives over 35 angry messages, is an example of harassment.

2. Denigration: Damaging a person’s reputation by posting false news or gossip about him on the group.
An example of denigration is bullying with marks—specifically posting fake exam marks on the classroom WhatsApp group. The perpetrator(s) may target a particular student by making up marks lowest in the group for her.

3. Flaming: Fighting online by exchanging angry, nasty, or obscene messages or posts.
Situation 2, in which Akash and Sid send angry and nasty messages to each other, is an example of flaming.

4. Impersonation: Pretending to be someone else online in order to solicit or post personal or false information about someone.
Sheila poses as a boy who starts communicating with Veena and pretends to like her. Soon after, Veena begins to trust her ‘new boyfriend’ and reveals a lot of personal information. Sheila then publicises all this information on their classroom WhatsApp group and completely embarrasses Veena.

5. Trickery: Also called outing, it entails tricking someone into revealing personal information (such as secrets, embarrassing material, and so on) and then publishing it online, with the aim of damaging the victim’s friendships or reputation.
Venu receives a Whatsapp message saying 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 the WhatsApp group.
Reena is considered ‘uncool’, because she is always reading in the library and is not into dressing fashionably. Her peers exclude her from all their classroom WhatsApp groups and do not ‘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 is important to note that teens with no noticeable ‘differences’ can also be cyberbullied. So, no one is completely immune from cyberbullying.
Situation 3, in which Rohan is fat-shamed, is an example of bias-based bullying.

Due to the open and constantly available nature of WhatsApp application, targets may face constant and repeated assault at any given time. Consequently, cyberbullying victimization has potentially devastating effect on the psychological well-being of adolescents, manifested in negative emotions and depression, self-harm and suicidal ideation and attempts, negative academic achievement and school difficulties, dropout from school, violent behaviour, delinquency, difficulties with peers, unsafe sex practices, and involvement in substance use.

What can you do if your teen is being cyberbullied

Watch for Signs
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 is worried about what’s being said about her. Be on the lookout for the following signs

  • Changes in online behaviour
  • Changes in sleep and/or appetite
  • Withdrawal and loneliness
  • Not enjoying activities previously pursued
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Decline in grades
  • School refusal resulting in lowered school attendance
  • Helplessness and/or hopelessness
  • Lowered confidence and self-esteem
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Sad, anxious or depressed
  • Thoughts of self-harm or suicide

If your teen displays some or most of the above signs for more than 2 weeks, it’s a good idea to contact a mental health professional, such as a qualified clinical psychologist, or counsellor for assessment and intervention.
Moreover, you should never blame your teen for getting into the classroom group or continuing to be in the group, despite being targeted.

Help Your Teen Respond
It’s always important to keep your teen involved because your teen understands her school life and peers better than you do. So, her perspective is important in helping both of you figure out workable solutions. Additionally, when your teen is involved in brainstorming and implementing solutions, it boosts her self-esteem, and helps restore much of the control and dignity that has been stripped away by cyberbullying. 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, it is sometimes best not to respond to the nasty posts or comments. If your teen feels the need to respond, some humour 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 and not respond to the numerous angry WhatsApp messages she has received. Or, she could just post 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, (the photos, messages, and so on), 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 his classroom WhatsApp group. He could save 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 your teen will not stand for this kind of harassment any more. Use role plays and discussions to help your teen practice being assertive and taking a stand against bullying.
Venu’s parents could teach him to stand up for himself, to be assertive, and tell the peers teasing 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 peer 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, messages, and comments) to the school personnel. Brainstorm all possible ways to tackle the situation and choose a solution by consensus. 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. Else, if it is really a safety issue, it is important for Sid to discuss it with his parents and report the threat to the school personnel to ensure his own safety.

If your teen is being cyberbullied, you can lend your support and let her understand you love and care for her 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 Aspect of Cyberbullying in India

Consider the scenario of impersonation described above. The target may feel threatened due to a possibility of damage to her reputation. Or she may feel threatened to communicate with the perpetrator because she may feel that the perpetrator has access to information which is personal and if leaked, can cause huge embarrassment. But this understanding of threat does not currently qualify as a subject to be regulated by penal laws because this seems trivial to many lawmakers, jurists, and prosecutors. The ‘threat’ however may become serious if it adversely affects the target: for example, if the target takes extreme steps like attempting or committing suicide. Some jurisdictions are, however, considering the effect of threat due to bullying on the targets. But the penalty may be milder. Indian lawmakers have not yet considered this concept of generating of threat due to bullying including cyberbullying.

Different stakeholders have tried to address cyberbullying from legal angles, but so far it has not been successfully regulated. If the case of cyberbullying is addressed by law, a proper legal recourse for the perpetrator could entail applying the concept of ‘Therapeutic Jurisprudence’ by the judicial magistrates who may be handling the cases*. Let us understand why the first author Dr. Halder suggests this:

  • In cases where cyber bullying leads to (a) creation of threat to the target, (b) instigating for taking extreme steps like committing suicide or (c) shapes into denigration, doxing etc, which may damage reputation of the victim and thereby invite defamation to the victim, or (d) there is extreme name calling (including caste name calling which is penalised by Scheduled caste and Scheduled tribes (prevention of Atrocities Act, 1989)^, the perpetrator, irrespective of his/her age, may be apprehended by the police (specifically special juvenile police unit) on the basis of the complaint lodged by the victim or his/her parents/guardians etc.
  • When the perpetrator is a minor, the case is generally taken over by the Juvenile Justice Board. In case it includes sexual bullying, the case may be taken over by the special court designated by Protection of Children from Sexual offences Act.
  • Coming to the sentences that may be given by the courts, the courts generally prefer sentences which may be reformative in nature.
  • Here, we also need to see S.360 of Criminal Procedure Code, which speaks about order to release on probation of good conduct or after admonition: the term admonition actually means a firm warning or reprimand. This provision is generally used in such cases when the offender is an underage offender and the offence is not a very heavy offence, but has the potential to attract more risk to the victim and also to the society at large. In general, this system has been indicated in the Juvenile Justice Care and Protection of children Act, 2015 and release of the perpetrator unless the parents are made vicariously liable for providing smart communication devices without sensitising the adolescent about proper netiquette.

Situation becomes really challenging when cyberbullying is not addressed by laws. In such cases, nothing but awareness may work. However, awareness may work only for prevention of cyberbullying and not necessarily for restoration of justice. Often schools take these matters in their own hands and deal with them adversely: they may not pay any heed to the targets because they may feel it is the target who is to be blamed for joining the WhatsApp groups. In certain cases, they may even decide to suspend or even expel the students who may be perpetrators. But that may not serve any purpose because the perpetrator may then become more revenge-minded. Hence the best way could be proper communication with parents and the teen to make the whole family understand what is the nature of the mistake that the child has committed and what may be the consequences.

 *For more understanding on this, see Halder (2015). A retrospective analysis of Section 66A: Could Section 66A of the Information Technology Act be reconsidered for regulating ‘bad talk’ in the internet?Indian Student Law Review, 1, pp. 99-128. ISSN 2249-4391

^S3(1)(s) of this Act mentions as follows: Whoever, not being a member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe, abuses any member of a Scheduled Caste or a Scheduled Tribe by caste name in any place within public view, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which shall not be less than six months but which may extend to five years and with fine.

In a Nutshell

  • WhatsApp messaging in classroom groups has opened up another window for bullying perpetrators to harass their targets. Types of cyberbullying involving WhatsApp 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
  • It is 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 has been stripped away
  • Schools and parents must engage in workshops for awareness creation in this regard. They must know about Child Welfare Committee’s scope in this matter

What you can do right away

  • Cue in to your teen’s WhatsApp activities and have ongoing discussions about the conversations in her classroom WhatsApp groups
  • Gain trust of your teen to make her share what is happening in the groups. Make sure that your child does not reply to any unwanted message in a group even if it is posted by her trusted friend
  • In case of messages which are extremely harassing, or flaming or defamatory, consider reporting the matter to the school and consequently, the school must inform the parent about this online behaviour of the 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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