An Australian research team has begun investigations which is hopes will stop today’s school cyber bullies from becoming tomorrow’s boardroom tyrants. The three-year study into cyber bullying by Queensland University of Technology is one of 13 QUT projects that has been awarded a total of $3.19 million by the Australian Research Council.

Research team leader, Dr Marilyn Campbell, from QUT’s Faculty of Education, said the legal implications of cyber bullying were not fully understood and the law was now ‘playing catch up’.

‘The study will guide schools on policies and practices that will assist and protect victims, educate students and families and help schools avoid liability and keep them out of court,’ Dr Campbell said.
‘We’re aiming to inform the development of intervention and prevention strategies and potential reform of the existing law and policies.’

Cyber bullying is perpetrated electronically via e-mail, instant messaging, uploaded files, text messages and blogs.

A big issue for schools and their families is the dramatic rise in mobile phone abuse. A new study has shown that nearly all teens will experience some form of mobile phone bullying by the time they graduate high school and boys are more likely to be exposed.

Lead researcher, Assoc Prof Judy Drennan from QUT’s Faculty of Business, said the study of 218 Queensland teens found 93.6 per cent had experienced at least one incident of mobile phone bullying, also known as m-bullying. M-bullying refers to using your mobile phone to harass, menace or offend someone and can include such actions as sending obscene or pornographic images, threats to sabotage a person’s reputation, or inappropriate messages of affection.

‘In contrast to previous research suggesting m-bullying did not appear to be increasing, our study finds that it is more prevalent than generally perceived among senior high school students,’ Assoc Prof Drennan said.
The study investigated the occurrence of m-bullying on high school students and its impact on their self-esteem, as well as examining the differences between genders.

‘It was expected that females would experience more m-bullying than males and experience higher levels of distress. However, it was found that boys are, on average, exposed to more m-bullying instances than girls,’ she said.

‘But with regard to distress levels, girls were significantly more likely than boys to be distressed about certain m-bullying experiences.’

Assoc Prof Drennan said when it came to m-bullying, girls were more concerned about having private information about them exposed to others, people pretending to be someone they were not, and receiving exaggerated messages of affection.

Boys, on the other hand, were more likely to be distressed in terms of m-bullying that sabotages their work or school reputation.

She said the study also found boys were more than twice as likely to receive unsolicited pornographic or obscene images or messages on their phones and almost twice as likely to receive threatening messages.

Almost 50 per cent of respondents said they had been sent excessively disclosive messages and again males were more likely to experience this than females.

It was also noted that girls are significantly more likely to keep any m-bullying messages and tell a trusted adult about what was happening.

Assoc Prof Drennan said as the consumption of mobile digital technology was an integral part of the daily lives of young people, it was important to investigate the relationship with subjective wellbeing and to relate it to m-bullying.

‘The results of this study provide an understanding of the impact of mobile devices on youth well-being,’ she said. ‘This may enable educators, consumer groups, youth counsellors, parents and government organisations to develop intervention strategies to reduce and prevent m-bullying.’

One NSW mother, Deb Smith, said her 11-year-old daughter who attends a Catholic primary school on the mid north coast was the victim of subtle, ongoing bullying.

‘Basically some of the girls use SMS and MSN as a way to bully their so called friends out of school hours,’ she said. ‘They can make subtle or direct emotional attacks which are designed to make their victim feel inferior or insecure and they are just as painful as a physical assault, if not worse. The difference is that the bully can hide behind technology. They don’t have to speak face to face to do the damage. They can say anything without having to confront their victims. They can insult and ostracise at the push of a button.’

Dr Campbell said, legally, bullying posed some interesting problems. Children under 10 have no criminal liability and older kids are hard enough to pursue, yet schools are concerned about possible civil action.
‘In any case, children fear retribution if they dob in bullies, so adults who intervene need to do so sensitively or risk making the problem worse.’

Dr Campbell said researchers would work with focus groups of students, teachers, principals and parents to look at the incidence and consequences of cyber bullying, seeking helpful approaches.

The next step will be to look at school’s policies and procedures and how they deal with the problem.
Dr Campbell said QUT research in 2002 and 2007 with small samples showed 14 per cent of children reported cyber bullying.

The project is a joint collaboration involving QUT, Macrossans Lawyers, the Queensland Independent Education Union, the Queensland Teachers’ Union, Brisbane Girls Grammar School, Brisbane Catholic Education, the Queensland Chapter of Australian and New Zealand Law Association and Emil Ford & Co – Lawyers.

Contact Dr Marilyn Campbell on 0409 486 570.