Delhi schoolgirl Tiya Singh* is still struggling to cope with how she was shut out of all her friends’ groups last year, after a minor tiff with one of them. “I was deleted from the WhatsApp group, unfriended on Facebook. It was humiliating,” says the 17-year-old. “I was no longer part of any of our school gossip sessions. I felt completely left out.”
As children live more of their lives online, this has become another form of the cyberbullying that has been worrying parents and schools for the past few years.
“The changing times demand a broadening of the concept of bullying. It’s no longer limited to aggression,” says Dr Samir Parikh, consultant psychiatrist and director of the department of mental health and behavioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare. “Isolation on social media is very much an act of bullying too.”
Parikh and Fortis Healthcare conducted a survey on bullying earlier this month, covering a total of 1,800 school-going teenagers across Delhi-NCR, and found that bullying via social media, known as cyberbullying, has become a major cause of distress among teenagers, with as many as 31% of children polled having faced harassment on social media.
This kind of bullying usually targets vulnerable children and takes the form of derisive messages, critical emails, defamatory posts and the sharing of private photographs, says Dr Batra, psychiatrist and founder of wellness clinic and online counselling centre Mindframes.
The impact of this kind of bullying can be severe.
“Cyberbullied children are more likely to experience anxiety, depression, fear, loneliness and low self-esteem. Often, these kids feel overwhelmed, vulnerable and powerless as they find it difficult to feel safe, because bullying invades their home through cell phones and computers,” says Dr Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist at Mumbai-based counselling centre Mind Temple. “Bullying often preys on the victim’s worst fears, which makes them feel inadequate and worthless. This, in turn, can lead to unwillingness to attend school or poor grades and may even push subjects towards alcohol, drugs, or self-harm.”
For parents, it’s hard to know how to respond. “As parents, we felt helpless because we didn’t think it appropriate to intervene in a children’s fight,” says Tiya’s mother.
In severe cases, counsellors advise parents to approach the school.
That’s what the parents of one teen finally ended up doing, after his classmates began posting comments on Facebook such as: ‘He looks like such a girl… boys are never this fair… why is he so fat?’
“Every day, the boy read nasty comments on his skin colour, weight and appearance and the bullies had no idea of the extent of psychological impact these had on the kid,” says Mumbai-based clinical psychologist Dr Seema Hingorrany, who treated the teenager.
This continued for two months before the child’s parents realised the cause of the sudden drop in academic performance, phobia of going to school, low self-esteem, shattered confidence and crying spells. He has been undergoing counselling for four months and will likely require two more months of therapy.
After his parents took up the issue with the school counsellors, the bullies have been receiving counselling too.
The best way to deal with the possibility of cyberbullying is to be vigilant, the experts say.
The Delhi Public School in Gurgaon, for instance, has formed an anti-bullying squad and committee, comprising students, counsellors, principal and parents.
“We believe the best way to deal with bullying is by acknowledging it and dealing with it. In our school, we take bullying very seriously and have strict measures in place to discourage it,” says Renuka Fernandes, a student counsellor at the school.
Kalyani Patnaik, principal of Mumbai’s Hiranandani Foundation School, admits that it is becoming difficult for teachers to tackle students’ internet obsession today. “Every child now has a smartphone. Cases of bullying over social networking websites regarding weight issues and personal appearances is a frequent affair,” she says.
Her school frequently holds counselling sessions in sync with a child’s psychology and educates students about the harms of internet.
Parental intervention and guidance plays an important role too. Parents should take lead in educating children about the pros and cons of sharing information online, teaching them about the importance of privacy of online accounts and creating awareness about the occurrences of cyberbullying, say experts.
“Also, if needed, both victims and the bully must be counselled in order to stop the cycle,” says Dr Chhabria.
Often, in the case of cyberbullying, ignorance is bliss, and the best way to respond to any form of bullying is not to respond at all, say experts.
“Cyberbullies always look for a response, hence the best remedy is to ignore their posts, texts and comments,” says Dr Chhabria. “But sometimes ignoring them can be difficult. In that case, if one is getting very affected by what is written or said, one should report it to a higher authority like a parent, teacher, guidance counsellor, therapist or the internet service provider.”
In the event of death threats, physical violence or any indications of stalking, it is important to consider informing the police, adds Dr Chhabria.
(Name changed on request)