• thewhitehatter

COVID-19, Cyberbullying, Catastrophizing, and Misrepresenting the Prevalence


We here at The White Hatter do believe that cyberbullying, or what we like to call digital peer aggression, is a clear and present challenge to youth in today’s online world, and a serious issue that we speak to in our presentations with youth. However, what we take issue with is how some are misrepresenting the numbers during the COVID pandemic. As Julie Inman Grant, Australia’s eSafety Commissioner stated to us, “I have seen a number of research reports catastrophizing the numbers/prevalence without a baseline but also without the daily engagement we have with the kids.” We couldn’t agree more with this statement, based upon our continued interactions with the thousands of youth who interact with us on our social media platforms, and the continued engagement that we have with credible academic experts specific to this challenge.

Just recently, I read an article where it was reported that there has been a “70 percent increase in cyberbullying” during COVID-19 (1). This 70% increase made me stand-up and go “hmmm,” considering how closely I follow online threats faced by teens. Although I agree that anecdotally we have seen an increase in cyberbullying during the pandemic, at the time of this article there is NO credible academically peer-reviewed research that shows, or even supports, an increase of 70%.

So where did this number come from? It came from the US-based company “L1ght” (2). L1gth has developed and sells artificial intelligence technology to help tech companies, and not for profits, to create “AI guardrails to curb online toxicity on their platforms” This is a noble cause and something we would support.

In 2020, L1ght published a report titled, “Rising Levels of Hate Speech and Online Toxicity During This Time of Crisis” (3). What is important, the context of this report was specific to hate speech and its associated online toxicity. In this report, L1ght found: “We witnessed nearly a 70% growth in hate speech between kids and teens during online chats.”

What is clear, L1ght’s report was specific to “hate speech” which can be included under the cyberbullying umbrella. It’s not that teen cyberbullying as a whole has increased by 70% during the pandemic, but rather they reported that hate speech by teens has increased by 70% based upon their research methodology. However, for some reason, this 70% is being attributed in the media, and by some in my field of social media safety and digital literacy advocacy, to cyberbullying as a whole.

We also need to be careful when reading reports citing cyberbullying to identify the exact definition of the term in how researchers define it, and research participants interpret it. As in our experience working with young people across North America, the term cyberbullying can relate to many different things. Definitions can range from simple rude behaviours to verbal violence, two very different interactions.

From our experience, we can echo that we have seen an increase in groups associated with hate crime, misogyny, xenophobia and white supremacy engaging with youth online. These groups are engaging youth online as an effective recruitment tool to help them spread their poisoned ideology. Again, this is something that we speak to in our youth presentations as something teens need to be alive to.

So, have we seen a spike in online youth-based cyberbullying, we believe the answer is yes. To what degree, we don’t know yet. Presently, there are no good peer-reviewed studies or industry reports with a reliable methodology that we are aware of that sheds any light on this issue that provides us with some prevalence numbers. Having said this, we do believe that there are credible anecdotal numbers that support a spike. Once again, we turn to Australia’s eSafety Commission, one of the world’s leaders when it comes to digital literacy and youth who reported:

In our conversations, they said “We saw a 32% increase in cyberbullying reports made from March – October over the same period last year (2019)”

Australia’s 32% reported increase was interesting to us. We asked some teens who follow us on social media if they have seen or experienced an increase in cyberbullying during COVID, 36% stated yes. Again anecdotal, but very congruent with Australia’s numbers.

Even with these anecdotal numbers, we are very alive to a statement made by a researcher that we respect, Derel Laffan, when talking with them stated, “We have to be careful attributing reasons for increases in online harm offences during a time like this (COVID). An increase in reporting could mean more people being online to report it. Not that more time online leads to additional abuse”

Again, is the issue of cyberbullying a concern during COVID, absolutely, and it will continue to be post COVID! Has cyberbullying spiked over COVID, probably yes, to what degree we don’t know yet. More importantly, specific to the context of this article has cyberbullying spiked to over 70% during COVID, likely no! However, we look forward to reviewing the current academic research that we know is presently taking place on this issue, and more importantly their results.

As always, knowledge and the understanding and application of that knowledge is power. As parents, we just need to ensure that this knowledge is based upon good research, and not from juvenoic fear-based information reported in the media that is often unjustifiably misrepresented and catastrophized, which in turn can cause a moral panic.

Digital Food for Thought

Darren Laur