Why Our Definition of Cyber Bullying Needs to Evolve in Order to Achieve More Effective Education and Management in Schools (Part Two)

28 February 2019

This is the second of a two-part series by Jordan Foster, Clinical Psychologist and Managing Director of ySafe Australia. Part One asked schools to look closely at their definition and understanding of cyber bullying and explained how the term cyber bullying can sometimes be over applied, often to the detriment of the students concerned. Part Two explains how the term cyber bullying can sometimes be underapplied. Jordan Foster then challenges schools to look closely at their definition and understanding of cyber bullying, puts forward additional considerations for classifying cyber bullying and suggests how schools can use their current policies to mitigate against this very real online student risk.

The Issue of the Underapplication of ‘Cyber Bullying’

The issue of underapplication centres around a single word found in the majority of anti-bullying policies: “repeated”. The purpose of “repeated” within most cyber bullying definitions is to deter over reporting and over policing, and to provide opportunities for resilience-building among students.

The main argument that is occurring within school contexts now is in relation to scenarios in which online conflict is singular in nature, yet the potential to cause harm is severe. Take, for example, if a student receives a message from another student. It is a once-off occurrence; however, the message is rife with death threats and cruel comments. Imagine also that the student receiving this message is 10.

The existing definitions adopted by many schools within their ICT or anti-bullying policies would mean that this scenario would not be classified as cyber bullying, because of the word “repeated”. Despite there being only a single episode of conflict, it is arguable that significant psychological and social harm may occur.

The repeated nature of cyber bullying attacks may not directly correlate with the severity of such attacks. It is essential that anti-bullying policies adequately support and enable incident management procedures to be applied at the level of intervention that is appropriate for the magnitude of the incident.

An Additional Consideration for Classifying Cyber Bullying

The solution to both the over and under application of cyber bullying classifications is not straight forward. A part of the solution may be to consider the relevant intent. Intent is an important factor that is often overlooked when identifying and categorising cyber bullying. The impact of this is two-fold.

Firstly, if a student is victimised online in a single episode and the aggressor’s intent was to cause harm or incite fear, the incident management processes can factor this in, and therefore more adequately address the level of harm and required intervention. Within this context, Ria Hanewald in “Confronting the Pedagogical Challenge of Cyber Safety” suggested that an act such as that described above would be best labelled as “cyber violence”, thereby giving precedence to the severity of the action, despite its singularity in occurrence.

Secondly, if the intent of the online aggression was to resolve interpersonal issues that were occurring between multiple students, then we have an opportunity to teach students adaptive skills in conflict resolution and communication. Hanewald argued that distinctions between cyber bullying and other forms of online relational aggression are important, as to label all types of online conflict as a single construct such as cyber bullying categorises all student incidents as being the same. This unilateral labelling implies that a student who has sent a single death threat requires the same behavioural and policy implications as a student who posted a meme in jest (even if the joke was slightly misguided).

Intent is difficult to ascertain, although it may be a step forward in addressing cyber bullying within the school context. By broadening our classification of cyber bullying and considering contextual factors such as intent, we may find that our education initiatives, anti-bullying policies and intervention strategies may render more meaningful outcomes and incite positive cultural change within the school community.

What Schools Can Do to Improve their Understanding and Handling of Cyber Bullying Incidents

To broaden the definition of bullying to include single acts of aggression is a worthy topic for debate at a school level. However, schools can and should treat acts of ‘cyber aggression’ in the same manner in which they would treat verbal aggression or verbal attacks in the playground. The actions are the same, however, the students are using an on-line platform for their behaviour.

For whatever reason, students believe there is a level of impunity if they use social media platforms to attack or vilify another child. They, like many adults, are unaware that the laws of the land and the rules of a school are just as applicable in cyberspace as they are in a playground.

Schools should have very clear policies regarding bullying, social media and behaviour management. In more recent years, many schools have now adopted student codes of conduct. If a school determines that a ‘one off’ issue between students is not an act of bullying, by the current standard definition, the behaviour is nevertheless most definitely in breach of school policy or the student code of conduct.

As intent is difficult to ascertain, schools would be able to deal with these ‘one off’ cyber aggressive behaviours through their student code of conduct and therefore they would be able to teach students vital adaptive skills in conflict resolution and communication.


ySafe is Australia’s leading provider of digital citizenship education within schools. Certified under the Office of the eSafety Commissioner, ySafe is a trusted partner of online safety education and cyber safety consulting in over 200 schools, with education provided to over 200,000 students and 50,000 parents across the country. ySafe’s award-winning team is comprised of clinical psychologists, law enforcers, and educators, who promote the positive and ethical use of technology. For more information about digital citizenship education or cyber safety services, visit ysafe.com.au