What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying, like other forms of bullying, can cause severe harm to
the victim and to others around them.
Many submitters emphasised that cyberbullying is a complex problem.
As Professor Marilyn Campbell, Founding Member of the Australian Universities'
Anti‑bullying Research Alliance (AUARA) argued, '...all forms of bullying
are a very complex problem. As such, they are deeply embedded in our society,
and you can't have one simple solution for such a complex problem.'
Moreover, cyberbullying can occur in many forms and contexts. As the
Tasmanian Government submitted:
Cyberbullying covers a broad range of conduct, relationships,
motivations and means of distribution. Cyberbullying can be used to coerce,
control, abuse, blackmail, humiliate, intimidate or harass another person.
The wide-ranging nature of cyberbullying was demonstrated by the breadth
of evidence received by the committee. In particular, the committee heard that
cyberbullying between children is often very different to cyberbullying targeting
adults, although the two are not entirely distinct.
This chapter outlines evidence received by the committee regarding:
the nature of cyberbullying between children;
the nature of cyberbullying targeting adults, and
working toward a consistent and national definition of
Cyberbullying between children
The prevalence of cyberbullying
The Tasmanian Government highlighted that '[t]he use of modern
technology has contributed to the prevalence of cyberbullying and the ease with
which a person can access and distribute offensive material.'
The Office of the eSafety Commissioner (eSafety Office) stated that approximately
one in five Australian children are cyberbullied.
The eSafety Office also provided data from its research, which indicate that:
[i]n the 12 months to June 2016, 8% of children and 19% of
teenagers were cyberbullied, and we saw a 63% increase in complaints about
cyberbullying between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
Further, research indicates that girls are cyberbullied more
frequently than boys, although an increasing number of boys were targets over
In addition, the eSafety Commissioner, Ms Julie Inman Grant, recently said
that '[w]e have seen a 133 per sent spike in cyberbullying reports from young
people over the first two weeks of February when kids have been going back to
yourtown cited figures from the Kids Helpline, stating that:
[i]n 2017 alone, Kids Helpline had over 3,000 contacts about
cybersafety, with over 950 contacts concerned about cyberbullying. A
significant proportion of these—some 44 per cent—were made by children aged
only 12 to 14, revealing that cyberbullying is common in transitional years
between primary and secondary school and during puberty.
Moreover, '[Kids Helpline] tip sheets on cyberbullying issues were viewed
23,183 times in 20l6, with 7,226 accessing parent and teacher tip sheets on the
The Queensland Family and Child Commission submitted that cyberbullying
is most prominent among young people aged 10–15 years.
Mr Jeremy Blackman, Senior Advisor, Cybersafety at the Alannah & Madeline
Foundation, stated that cyberbullying can be particularly high around
'transition to secondary school'.
Although these figures show cyberbullying to be fairly widespread, the
committee heard that it is merely one type of bullying.
Professor Campbell of AUARA highlighted that '[f]ace-to-face bullying is shown
still to be much more prevalent than cyberbullying. We really need to look at
the problem as a whole.'
The Queensland Family and Child Commission also submitted that measures
against cyberbullying 'should take into account the increased vulnerability of
some groups of children, including girls, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander
children, children with a disability and children with cognitive impairments.'
Causes of cyberbullying between
Many submitters argued that cyberbullying between children is linked
with other bullying, often within the school environment.
The Attorney‑General's Department called cyberbullying '...a modern
manifestation of "traditional" bullying behaviour.'
Similarly, the eSafety Office stated that:
[i]n many instances, cyberbullying is an extension of
bullying or conflict occurring within the school. In reports to eSafety about
cyberbullying, victims often note that the harassment they experience online
mirrors their experience at school. Further, the perpetrators are in many
instances the same.
Mr John Dalgleish, Head of Strategy and Research at yourtown, explained:
In our data, what 400 young people have said to us in the
last week is that 85 per cent knew who was cyberbullying and two-thirds of
those who were being cyberbullied knew that it was the bully that was doing it
in a face-to-face situation.
The Australian Human Rights Commission submitted that children tend not
to distinguish between the physical and digital world:
Consultations with children by the National Children’s
Commissioner reveal that most children do not see a clear distinction between
the online and physical world and report that bullying usually occurs in both
physical and online settings.
Mr Dalgleish of yourtown also explained that '...from our research and our
service experiences, a child can be bullied, be the bully and be a bystander to
bullying at any time in their life.'
Ms Lesley Podesta, Chief Executive Officer of the Alannah & Madeline
Foundation, provided some data on this point:
...there are nearly 900,000 bullying incidents of children in
Australia a year. Approximately one-third of those are children who are victims
and perpetrators. There's a significant crossover between the groups.
Dr Kerrie Buhagiar, Director of Service Delivery at ReachOut Australia,
posited a reason for cyberbullying having become normalised among young people:
I think the primary reason is the prevalence, because they
see it happening all around them in their everyday lives, online and offline.
So, it has I guess become perceived as a normal part of teenage behaviour.
Mr Blackman of the Alannah & Madeline Foundation stated that
bullying behaviours are '...generally recognised as a learned behaviour' and also
that '...the trauma of going through bullying or cyberbullying can, in many
cases, lead to that person becoming a perpetrator of that same behaviour.'
Ms Laura Clarke, Advocacy and Policy Lead at yourtown, posited that, given
the cyberbullying conducted by adults, children who cyberbully '...can simply be
seen to be modelling the behaviour of their elders and the wider community.'
yourtown also provided several case studies of cyberbullying perpetrators
contacting the Kids Helpline, and explained that '...young cyberbullies can be
motivated to bully for a series of reasons...',
for fun or entertainment, as a joke, or because they are bored;
because they feel powerless, unheard, or frustrated, and
cyberbullying is a way to get attention or vent their anger;
because they see others doing it, wish to model others'
behaviour, or feel peer pressure;
to maintain their popularity; or
because they may have been a victim of cyberbullying themselves
and are seeking justice.
Further, yourtown argued that '...an important element of cyberbullying is
the nature of the internet', and submitted that:
[t]he internet can be seen to facilitate bullying or be an
unwieldy, powerful tool with far-reaching repercussions in the hands of witting
or unwitting bullies given that:
People can post anonymously, freeing people's normal inhibitions
so that they feel they can say whatever they like without consequence
People feel less empathy or concerned by their actions as they
cannot see the hurt that they are causing their friend or stranger
Complete strangers can cast their opinion on people's posts or
pictures, about whom they have no personal knowledge, connection and therefore
as a result, no empathy with the individual they may be attacking
Posts online can be shared to an audience of thousands, and once
online, posts can be re‑shared and have long‑lasting and ongoing
Bullies can now reach their targets in their own homes 24/7,
victims cannot escape even at home and even if they come off social media as
they can receive personal texts.
Cyberbullying behaviours between
The eSafety Office submitted that:
[t]he most common forms of cyberbullying are social
exclusion, name calling, and the spreading of lies and malicious rumours. Our
experience shows that children and teens are predominantly bullied online by
those in their own peer group.
The Alannah & Madeline Foundation noted that '[t]he rapidly changing
nature of technology means that the form cyberbullying takes continues to morph
as new ways and means of using technology emerge.'
yourtown listed various types of cyberbullying behaviours:
harassment: repeatedly sending offensive messages to a target;
cyberstalking: intense harassment and denigration that includes
threats or creates significant fear in the victim (harassment becomes
cyberstalking when a victim fears for their personal safety);
denigration: making derogatory comments about a target. This can
occur using words or can involve the dissemination of a derogatory, sexual or
happy slapping: the filming of a physical assault on a victim and
the subsequent distribution of the film to humiliate the victim publically;
exclusion: purposely excluding a victim from entering online
domains such as a chat room discussion group;
outing and trickery: situations where a perpetrator manipulates
the victim into disclosing information that the perpetrator then publicises in
order to humiliate the victim; and
impersonation or masquerading: where a perpetrator pretends to be
the victim and sends offensive messages to others that appear to come from the victim.
The eSafety Commissioner has reported that the use of fake accounts to
impersonate peers makes up '...about 20 per cent of our complaints.'
Professor Campbell of AUARA stated that most cyberbullying between
children is not anonymous. She said that the notion of anonymous cyberbullying:
...is an adult perception because of trolling of adults, but
kids usually only bully people that they know. So they don't troll and just be
angry at celebrities; what they do is they pick on the kids at school and then,
after they leave school, they send them horrible messages when they get home as
well. So they usually know them. There's a very small percentage of kids who
don't know them.
While noting the overlap between cyberbullying and other bullying, some
submitters highlighted differences between these two behaviours. The eSafety
Commissioner stated that:
I think what you saw with the whole idea of COAG coming
together today is that state, territory and federal leaders said, 'Hey,
bullying isn't a new phenomenon.' I heard the senator say that these are social
and behavioural problems playing out in the technological sphere. I absolutely
agree. There are some unique characteristics of cyberbullying vis-a-vis
bullying. It's much more pervasive. Sometimes anonymity can be involved. With
the amplification with multiple people watching or partaking, that can amplify
a person's humiliation. With image based abuse and the fast proliferation of
images, that's obviously a devastating impact for victims.
The Tasmanian Government also distinguished between cyberbullying and
Cyberbullying differs somewhat from what is considered to be
'traditional' bullying in that it may involve a single but widely disseminated
or indefinitely accessible communication rather than a sustained course of
conduct. For example, where an online post is accessible indefinitely or the
sharing of a post goes 'viral' on social media outlets reaching a large number of
Similarly, yourtown submitted that '[o]nce bullying behaviour has been
committed online, repetitive bullying is no longer solely at the instigation of
the original bully or bullies.'
yourtown also argued that '...evidence suggests that the detrimental
impact of cyberbullying can be more severe and long lasting to its victims than
It is thought that cyberbullying can do more harm due to its
wider reach – with cyberbullies having access to a global audience – and due to
the facts that it no longer remains in the playground but can occur in the
safety of victims own homes, can take place 24/7, be carried out anonymously
and can remain on line in a number of different forums and be repeatedly
The effects of cyberbullying
The Australian Government Department of Education and Training
highlighted the harms of cyberbullying:
There is increasing evidence that both face-to-face bullying
and cyberbullying have lasting effects on young people, including poor
self-esteem and mental health, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. Recent
tragic events have further generated widespread concern about the issue of
The Tasmanian Government stated that '[t]he harm caused by bullying can
be very victim-specific and the consequences vary widely depending on the
yourtown painted a detailed picture of the negative effects cyberbullying can
Callers contact Kids Helpline expressing high levels of
anxiety, depression, isolation, humiliation or shame about cyberbullying. They
tell us that they don't want to go to school, that their grades are
deteriorating, that their relationships with their families and others are
suffering and that they're no longer interested in the hobbies they used to
enjoy. They feel hopeless, powerless and, most tragically, sometimes even
suicidal. Indeed, some 14 per cent of young people who contacted our
counsellors about online safety issues in 2017 were experiencing suicidal
thoughts at the time of contact. Of notable concern, nine per cent of those
were aged just five to 12 years old. We know therefore that cyberbullying
is an increasingly prevalent issue, taking a serious emotional toll on the very
youngest Australians, with long-lasting and, at times, devastating consequences
for the health and wellbeing of our children.
In addition to victims, perpetrators can also be negatively affected by
cyberbullying. yourtown stated that Kids Helpline hears from:
...cyberbullies who ring us severely distressed, remorseful and
worried about their future. These young cyberbullies urgently need appropriate
support and education to help them more positively navigate their online
worlds, including mental health support services targeted to meet their
The eSafety Office noted that the harms of cyberbullying extend even
beyond victims and perpetrators:
The consequences are often felt well beyond the perpetrator
and victim involved, impacting families, friends and local communities. Schools
are often adversely impacted, as are service providers such as out of home care
organisations. In some cases, police become involved.
Some submitters questioned the extent of any direct link between
cyberbullying and suicide. The National Mental Health Commission stated:
The real-world consequences of bullying in children and young
people include the risk of developing a mental health condition, including
either depression or anxiety, or both, and it can also lead to an increased
risk of the use of drugs and alcohol as well as self-harm, suicidal ideation
and suicide attempts.
However, we do know that suicide is multifaceted, and its
causes are complex...Research suggests that most people who die by suicide have
underlying risk factors including mental health issues and other social
The National Children's Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights
Commission, Ms Megan Mitchell, referred to research she conducted in
...found that while bullying was a feature in some of the
suicides of children it was rarely the sole factor at play. A multiplicity of
risk factors predispose a child to suicide or self-harm. These include, as has
been said, mental health problems, substance abuse, child abuse, adverse family
experiences, school, stress, body image and a history of intentional self-harm
with or without suicidal intent.
Dr Buhagier of ReachOut Australia discussed the link between
cyberbullying and mental distress, and the link between mental distress and
The research that we've done with young people would suggest
that cyberbullying actually is very closely linked to increased distress, and
that can reveal itself in many different ways, around social isolation and
around their mood. There are a whole range of issues that young people have identified
as a result of cyberbullying, which then link to high levels of distress. I
think we know that there's a link between high levels of distress and suicide.
Whether you can always necessarily draw that direct line is, I think, a
question to be asked.
Dr Buhagier further explained that '[w]e know that there is a link
between A and B and between B and C, but to then directly draw a link from A to
C is not always as straightforward as we would like.' However, she also noted
that '[i]f you're asking me whether reducing or preventing cyberbullying is
positive in terms of mental health outcomes and distress, I would say,
Professor Campbell was particularly clear when questioning the notion of
a direct link between cyberbullying and suicide:
There has been no causal link shown between any kind of
bullying and anybody dying by suicide. There are always mental health issues
involved. A bullying incident might be a trigger. It might be a factor or it
might not be, but there are always mental health issues. We know that 30 per
cent of children have been bullied in the previous 12 months. They have not
died by suicide. So you can't say that there's a link. It is mental health.
Cyberbullying targeting adults
Cyberbullying behaviours targeting
Ms Clarke of yourtown acknowledged that cyberbullying extends beyond
Adults are also guilty of cyberbullying. The internet is
rampant with adults from many walks of life verbally abusing and bullying
others in light of their views, their appearance or some aspect of their life.
Indeed, it often feels like the internet is the new Wild West, where social
norms are yet to be instilled and where many people aggressively vent their own
The committee heard that cyberbullying of adults is often anonymous
trolling where the perpetrator does not personally know the victim. The Media,
Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) expressed that '[a] great concern is
how many cyberbullies hide behind anonymity in order to mount their attacks.'
The eSafety Commissioner stated that:
I can tell you from my experience working inside Twitter, I
have seen the worst and the worst of determined trolls and what they can do to
savage and destroy people's lives. Wily trolls will buy a different SIM card
every day for the sole purpose of finding a way to menace the same person. So
those people do exist.
Ms Ginger Gorman, Committee Member of Women in Media, described her
research on extreme trolling. She explained that some people troll '...for up to
30 hours a week', and that '...they want to hurt people and they take pleasure in
it.' She argued that trolling causes terrible consequences:
...trolls are wrecking lives. They're causing people,
especially women, to harm themselves, to lose their jobs, as Jenna [Price] has
mentioned, and to die by suicide. They deliberately wreck a person's reputation
so that the person becomes unemployable. It's essentially a type of economic vandalism.
Ms Van Badham, Media Section Vice President at the MEAA, quoted some
extremely violent and vulgar tweets she has received following her public
journalistic work. She stated that some of the men who sent these
communications to her had enough '...confidence...' to identify themselves with
their own names.
She also linked trolling to physically violent incidents that she has also
...these things are creating a context where violence and
harassment is spilling over into real life. Effectively, I have been
dehumanised on the internet and represented by these groups of people,
sometimes quite deliberately, in a way where they are incited by others towards
violence against my person.
Groups that are particularly
Some submitters argued that cyberbullying is a particular problem for
those who work in public‑facing media roles.
Maurice Blackburn Lawyers referred to employment expectations for journalists
to '...participate in on‑line discussions...' and '...express personal opinions...'.
It expressed concern that '...these "forced" interactions are exposing
media professionals to cyberbullying.'
The MEAA submitted that '[t]he lived experience of many MEAA members
working in the media industry is of being regularly subjected to harassment,
abuse and threats on social media...'.
It stated that this can occur at home or at work, 24 hours a day, and
...because of the nature of social media platforms and the
encouragement they give to others to "engage", others can join in so
that the abuse can swell and compound as others join the frenzy.
Ms Jenna Price, Committee Member at Women in Media, stated that it is
not always possible for journalists to block the offending accounts:
I used to be able to be really good at blocking and deleting,
but these people find ways around it. They do private messages, and I can't
block those because I'm a journalist. I need to be able to speak to people who
are regular and well intentioned and have interesting things to say.
Ms Badham of the MEAA expressed this problem as '...a workplace safety
issue that affects women disproportionately...'.
While acknowledging that male journalists also experience cyberbullying, Ms Price
stated that '...women journalists receive three times the number of abusive
tweets as what men experience.'
Ms Badham referred to a public event she attended with a male colleague,
after which she '...received 400 rape and death threats', while her male
colleague did not receive any.
Women in Media provided a several reasons as to why a person might cyberbully
or troll one of its members:
they find it amusing;
they do not like the other person's ideas or ideology;
another social media user or media personality has initiated the
abuse and they are following suit;
they don't consider it to be a big deal or illegal, "it's
the don't believe there will be any consequences to their
they feel they are anonymous.
In addition to cyberbullying of female journalists, submitters
highlighted cyberbullying of women more generally. Victorian Women Lawyers
Australian women and girls are more likely to be the victims
of cyberbullying, with young women particularly vulnerable to many
forms of cyberbullying including sexual harassment and stalking.
The National Council for Single Mothers & their Children stated that
'[i]t appears that some of most horrifying abuse and threats are reserved for
women who speak out or those deemed to be feminist.'
The Dr Merrindahl Andrew, Program Manager at the Australian Women
Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), argued that '...cyberbullying is also a
manifestation of technology facilitated abuse...', and that:
...it is important to understand that violence and bullying
generally are strongly interlinked with dynamics of gender and sexuality. The
normalisation of male violence and restrictive expectations about women and
girls are some of the key drivers of violence and bullying generally.
Ms Gorman of Women in Media argued that cyberbullying and trolling
'...disproportionately affects women, especially black women, people of colour
Mr Andrew Jakubowicz argued that some cyberbullying is linked with racism.
Additionally, AWAVA highlighted a recent survey which '...concluded that people
with disability, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and people who
identify as LGBTIQ are particularly vulnerable to technology-facilitated
A nationally consistent definition of 'cyberbullying'
Several submitters supported the development of a clear definition of
The Law Council of Australia submitted that '[t]he definition of
"cyberbullying" is not universal and is open to debate.'
...the need for common understanding of conduct which
constitutes cyberbullying, and the perpetrators involved, as a necessary basis
for assessing possible law reform options in this area.
Mr Blackman of the Alannah and Madeline Foundations stated that '[i]n many
respects, cyberbullying is still an adult-conceived term.'
His colleague, Ms Podesta, advocated '...bring[ing] together a range of
organisations to try to get some agreed, common definition' of cyberbullying:
...we don't believe that we have reached an appropriate
definition of cyberbullying, which is why we would issue caution about going
down a legislation path now. There isn't an agreed community understanding of
what this means. As I think all of us have said today, the issue of 'readily
understandable' is critical in this. You can't change behaviours if people
don't know what you're talking about.
Mr Dalgleish of yourtown stated that '[t]he law sets behavioural
standards in our community, so we do need some template about what it is we're
He also indicated some possible features of a cyberbullying definition when
discussing the difference between teasing and bullying:
I will kick off by saying that the difference is two things.
It's ongoing, so it's not a one-off; it's an ongoing pattern of behaviour and
intent—intent to humiliate or to hurt. Teasing might be in a particular
context; it might be a one-off. But, when you see a pattern emerging, when it's
an ongoing behaviour with that intent, then, to me, that's when it passes the
line to bullying and cyberbullying.
Ms Gorman of Women in Media referred to '...a very good definition that
comes out of the cyberbullying centre in the US, which is to do with repetitive
attacks with the intent to cause harm using an electronic device, so it's very
Some submitters also noted that bullying is already defined in a workplace
The eSafety Commissioner stated that '[t]here is a definition of serious
cyberbullying in the [Enhancing Online Safety Act 2015].'
The meaning of '...cyberbullying material targeting an Australian child...' is set
out in section 5 of this Act. Under subsection 5(1), material meets the
definition if it satisfies the following conditions:
- the material is
provided on a social media service or relevant electronic service;
- an ordinary reasonable
person would conclude that:
it is likely that the material was intended to have an effect on a
particular Australian child; and
the material would be likely to have the effect on the Australian child
of seriously threatening, seriously intimidating, seriously harassing or
seriously humiliating the Australian child;
such other conditions (if any) as are set out in the legislative rules
The eSafety Office explained that:
[w]hether the 'serious' threshold is met under the Act will
depend on the facts and circumstances of every individual complaint. The
Explanatory Memorandum to the Act makes clear that material must be more than
merely 'offensive or insulting' to be considered cyberbullying material. The
age and characteristics of the child will also be relevant, as will the
sensitivity of the material and the number of times it has been viewed or
The committee is aware that the interim report of the Australian
Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Cyber‑Safety, tabled in
June 2011, recommended:
[t]hat the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the
Digital Economy invite the Consultative Working Group on Cybersafety, in
consultation with the Youth Advisory Group, to develop an agreed definition of
cyber-bullying to be used by all Australian Government departments and
agencies, and encourage its use nationally.
The committee also notes the Australian Government's response to that
inquiry, dated December 2011, which accepted the above recommendation. It
The Safe and Supportive School Communities (SSSC) is a
Working Group of the Australian Education, Early Childhood Development &
Youth Senior Officials Committee (AEEYSOC). The Working Group includes
nominated representatives of all Australian education jurisdictions - all
state, territory and federal education departments as well as national Catholic
and independent schooling representatives.
The SSSC working group has developed the following definition
"Bullying is repeated verbal,
physical, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the
misuse of power by an individual or group towards one or more persons.
Cyberbullying refers to bullying through information and communication
The government response stated that various groups would be consulted on
this definition, and that '[t]he definition will be discussed and agreed by
state and territory governments through AEEYSOC.' The agreed definition would
then be promoted nationally.
The committee was not able to identify the current status of this
definition. The committee makes a recommendation about the definition of
cyberbullying in Chapter 5.
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