Image is illustrative (Shutterstock)

What is cyberbullying?

Definitions of cyberbullying vary from country to country but most of them note that it is a harmful act in the digital world done by one person or a group. Cyberbullying is not something new. It started when it became possible to exchange messages in the digital world because the most common way of cyberbullying is to insult someone. It has become more visible in the past 20 years because the number of people who use digital devices and social platforms has increased significantly. Also, the ways to cyberbully someone have developed; it is no longer something that can only be done through texts; now, acts of bullying can be done through the use of videos, live streaming, pictures, creating fake accounts, hacking existing accounts and several other actions.

The space where cyberbullying takes place is not the only thing that differentiates it from real life bullying. Dan Olweus says that bullying must be intentional behaviour that is repeated and has a power imbalance. In cyberbullying, it is hard to detect the power imbalance, especially in cases where the bully has an anonymous account. Also, it can be a non-repetitive action if the bully posts one picture or comment on social media and then stops. The repetition can happen after this one action, however, when others share the post. Sometimes, a comment is not meant as intentional bullying because the person did not assume that the other person might get offended. It is easy to misunderstand text or context. One thing is for sure; most cyberbullying cases constitute part of real life bullying.

The biggest myth is that cyberbullying is not as serious as real life face-to-face bullying. This is incorrect; both are equally serious and can contain several criminal activities. The latest dangerous cyberbullying instance has emerged from the Sarahah app. This app enabled users to send messages anonymously, and some young people used the app to send out messages such as “please, kill yourself”. Equally hurtful were messages ending with the line “we do not want you in our school” because the victim saw that behind this text there might be several people, maybe even the whole class. Interestingly, according to the law in Estonia it is not a crime to send out such a message, but it does not mean that it is an acceptable thing to do. It does not mean that the children do not get hurt. The police, school, parents and psychologists together can find a way to help victims.

How to protect our virtual identity

Cyberbullies attack the identities of other people and this is one crime that is hard to commit without the digital world. If they make a fake account, they can use it as a tool to humiliate someone. By taking over real accounts, the perpetrator can send messages in all the chats and get access to personal info. In fact, there have been cases where this has driven children into trying to take their own lives. Virtual identity theft will become the biggest and most influential crime in the next decade. If someone’s accounts have been blocked, taken over or faked (so that his reputation on the web is zero), it will be really hard in the future to order a taxi on Uber, rent a place through Airbnb or even find a girlfriend on Tinder. Our reputation on social media platforms will have a much bigger role in the near future and we must learn how to protect it.

Social and digital skills are the key words. If you do not develop them, you cannot master them. You can do this through games, apps, forums or special pages; it all depends on what you would like to learn. Many good practices can be found on the Digital Youth Work page.

  1. In Estonia, there are two practices that are useful in cyberbullying prevention and can also be adapted in other countries:
    Social Skills Olympics. This is a competition where everyone wins by completing all the workshops, during which they must use different social skills (teamwork, problem solving forum theatre, identifying feelings, cyberbullying). Practical training is important!
  2. Internet police officer system – internet police officer has a public account on Facebook and if someone wants to ask or report something, they can do it there. They also give lessons about cyberbullying and internet safety in person in schools or through Skype, so that more children know them and are more confident in asking for advice or help. Lately, it is used more by (young) adults because children prefer child helpline chats where they get answers 24/7. In cyberbullying cases, in particular, the response time is key and children must have a place where they get advice quickly.

How to prevent and overcome cyberbullying?

  • Invest more into teaching youngsters and their parents social and digital skills
  • Offer quick online ways for counselling
  • Have easy systems for reporting cases to the police
  • Demand more effective reporting systems from the platforms
  • Add more digital skill lessons into school programmes
  • Be good examples on social media

Children in similar situations will behave differently, and it often depends on the trust between children and parents: bigger trust usually means that children are more likely to ask for help from their parents. Every investment into equipping parents will have a double positive effect. MIL trainings for parents would have a significant, positive knock-on effect in their children’s lives.

Each cyberbullying case contains actions that can be defined. We should not use the term cyberbullying, if it was actually extortion, sextortion or blackmailing because then we would take away the real this-is-a-crime meaning. From a law perspective, cyberbullying has two main categories: civil court cases and criminal acts. If someone was defamed, then in most countries the victim can turn to the civil court. If someone lost his accounts through hacking, then the police can take action. Sometimes the solution comes from cooperation between police officers, schools, parents and social workers, such as in cases where someone is bullied by being left out from the group.

Platforms have tried to make the environment safer for everyone, but they cannot fully control people’s actions when they really want to hurt others. If we want to change the culture of hate speech and to lower the number of cyberbullying cases, we must take action. If we let people act in a way in which they can get away with breaking the penal code and hurting other people’s feelings without anyone reporting their actions, then this behaviour will become the new norm. We can see that happening in the gaming world, where players tend to think that verbal violence is a normal part of gaming. It should not be like that. For the person who is bullied, one kind word or action can mean the world.


Webpolice sitting behind the computer
Maarja Punak

A police officer with 16 years of experience in the field. Her job is connected with children, social media, cybercrimes and prevention. She works in the Communication Bureau in Estonian Police and Border Guard Board. Her goal is to tell real life cases so that they matter. Storytelling can make a difference.