Cyberbullying: How do we stem the tide?

Wednesday, 15 September 2021


Adding muscle to open doors

Who is responsible for protecting us from online bullies?

As our lives are increasingly impacted by what happens online in the digital world, we all must adjust to the good and the bad of living virtually. One major issue is that cyberbullying, trolling and similar personal attacks on social media and via messaging apps and their groups, can be truly destructive, with real world negative impact.

Cyberbullying is hard to define exactly, as well as difficult to track. But most knowledgeable commentators believe it is, unfortunately, a growing reality. According to, this practise can be described as “wilful and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, cell phones and other electronic devices”.

Furthermore, when conducts research about the topic, they use this expanded way of making clear what they mean when they use the term: “Cyberbullying is when someone repeatedly makes fun of another person online or repeatedly picks on another person through e-mail or text message or when someone posts something online about another person that they don’t like.”

According to the Pew Research Centre in America, “a majority of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying, with 59% of US teens having been bullied or harassed online and a similar share saying it’s a major problem for people their age.”

Who can stop cyber bullies?

Because most of cyberbullying happens to school-going children, support from parents and within home environments, as well as school-based assistance systems can help a lot to prevent and manage this behaviour. Excellent resources also exist online to assist victims of cyberbullies, such as Unicef’s extensive website guidance on the topic.

The United States Government runs a dedicated website resource called that provides lots of useful content about bullying in general and cyberbullying specifically.

In South Africa, Childline offers a helpline to children suffering from bullying, cyber or in other forms.

But while many ways to support cyberbullied children exist, with a significant amount of information available online, what about stopping cyberbullying where it happens online, i.e., on social media and via messaging apps? Who is responsible for stopping cyberbullying from happening online in the first place?

Over the past number years social media companies have been fairly reluctant to interfere with what people do on their platforms, but, research clearly shows that young people want them to do more. Most social media companies leave it to users to do something about cyberbullying themselves.

Facebook, for example, provides resources and guidance on how to handle cyberbullying as a victim. In the article “What should I do if I’m being bullied, harassed or attacked by someone on Facebook?”, the company advises to unfriend, block or report the person doing the bullying.

But is it really that straightforward? Can’t they do more, similarly to the way they had to step in during recent fractious political debates to ban and remove perpetrators of their policies themselves, rather than leave it up to individuals to “unfriend” bullies?

It’s not as if Facebook ignores the issue though. Its Instagram unit, for instance, has rolled out an array of tools for users to manage cyberbullying more effectively.

Adam Mosseri is the head of Instagram. On cyberbullying, he says: “Most of it seems to happen between people who know each other in real life … and teenagers are often reluctant to report or block their peers who bully them online,” as reported in an interview with NPR’s Audie Cornish. “The controls that we had before were insufficient.”

Hence the new range of Instagram’s relatively new tool called Restrict. In addition, the platform has launched a dedicated anti-bullying resource centre highlighting all the tools users can apply to stop cyberbullying on the platform.

Twitter is less vocal about cyberbullying, instead they use the phase “About online abuse” in their resource centre about the topic. Basically, it boils down to users taking actions themselves, such as to report the issue, unfollow abusers and linking to an article on how to help a friend or family with online abuse.

It seems as if the social platforms are acutely aware of this major issue, but they mostly stop with providing tools that users can use to manage or prevent cyberbullying themselves. While these tools, in various degrees depending on the platform, can go a long way to help users, the question remains if the platforms themselves shouldn’t do more in this regard.

Cyberbullying happens to adults who work too

Although one usually associates cyberbullying with children or young people as targets, it also happens in the workplace. A 2017 research study called Consequences of cyberbullying behaviour in working life by Tuija Muhonen, Sandra Jönsson,and Martin Bäckström details that “Organisations need … to develop occupational health and safety policies concerning the use of digital communication and social media in order to prevent cyberbullying behaviour and its negative consequences.”

The aims of cyberbullying behaviour amongst working adults are the same as for children and young adults in school as part of anti-social behaviour. Intimidation, harassment, victimization, manipulation and other similar reasons drive this behaviour at work.

The useful, recently published book Handbook of Research on Cyberbullying and Online Harassment in the Workplace (by Leslie Ramos Salazar, West Texas A&M University, USA), October 2020, “provides in-depth research that explores the theoretical and practical measures of managing bullying behaviours within an organization as well as the intervention strategies that should be employed.”

All indications are that cyberbullying is on the increase at workplaces as well, which means it’s an important for organisational managers to be aware of, prevent, manage and provide support to employees in this regard, to ensure a healthy workplace for all.

The big debate

So, as cyberbullying continues to proliferate and attacks become increasingly invasive, the issue of who is responsible for stemming this destructive tide is thus not always crystal clear. But what is certain is that it must be debated. Join the UJ Cloudebate™ at 18:00 on 15 September 2021, when a panel of experts will unpack what it all means.



Prof. Ylva Rodny-Gumede (Facilitator)

Ylva Rodny-Gumede (Facilitator) is the Senior Director: Division of Internationalisation and also Professor in the School of Communication at the University of Johannesburg.

She is a Senior Associate Researcher with the Stanhope Centre for International Communications Policy Research at the London School of Economics. She holds a PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), London University as well as an MA degree in Politics from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and an MA in Journalism from Cardiff University in the U.K. Ylva is a former journalist and has also worked in marketing and PR. In addition, she has consulted for several government, private and academic institutions in Europe and Southern Africa on issues concerning media and democracy, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Swedish National Agency for Higher Education, and the SADC Parliamentary Forum. Ylva holds a C 3 rating from the South African National Research Foundation (NRF) and is the current President of the South African Communications and Media Association (SACOMM).

Kerry-Lynn Thomson

Kerry-Lynn is a Professor in the School of Information Technology (IT), the Head of Department for the Network Engineering Department, and a senior team member of the Centre for Research in Information and Cyber Security (CRICS).

Kerry-Lynn is the current Chair of the international IFIP Technical Committee 11 Working Group 12 (11.12) – Human Aspects of Information Security and Assurance and has served as the Secretary and Vice-Chair of this Working Group over the past nine years. Kerry-Lynn is the current Vice-Chair of the Eastern Cape Chapter of the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA).

Kerry-Lynn teaches both undergraduate and postgraduate students. Her teaching area of specialisation focuses on advanced communication networking technologies and she is a senior instructor in the Cisco Networking Academy Program.

With regard to her research, Kerry-Lynn’s research focus is interdisciplinary and includes cybersecurity, information security, corporate culture and the human aspects of information assurance.

Dr Werner Nicolaas Nel


Senior law lecturer at the University of Johannesburg and researcher in the field of International Criminal- and Human Rights Law

Dr Werner Nicolaas Nel is a passionate lecturer with over 12 years’ experience in teaching a variety of legal subjects at diverse university platforms. He is a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, at the University of Johannesburg. His core teaching competency is criminal justice (both national and international), and he currently lectures criminal procedure and commercial law.

Werner has been part of the ‘UJ-family’ since 2004, starting out as an undergraduate LLB student and then completing his subsequent LLM degree (International law) in 2009. In 2019, he obtained an LLD – Doctor Legum (Doctor of Laws) – degree from the University of Pretoria with the main dissertation focus being Religious Persecution and Religious Freedom in the context of International Criminal- and Human Rights Law.[1] He has presented various papers at national and international conferences and published multiple peer-reviewed international journal articles with a focus on the intersection between religion and international law, and related disciplines. Werner is author of the book Grievous religious persecution: A conceptualisation of crimes against humanity of religious persecution (2021). Other publications in 2021 include: a publication in the Journal for Juridical Science, co-authored with Dr Georgia Du Plessis (University of Antwerp), entitled The Dimensional Elements of the Right to Freedom of Religion or Belief in the South African Constitution – an Evaluation in Light of Relevant Core International Human Rights Instruments; and an Afrikaans publication in the Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe: Godsdiens en die Reg, co-authored with Prof Christo Botha (University of Pretoria), entitled Die rol van godsdienstige identiteit in die bepaling van die “vervolgingsmodus” vir misdade teen die mensdom 2021.

Werner is the book review editor for the International Journal for Religious Freedom and former secretary of the Religious Liberty Commission, South Africa.

[1] LLD dissertation available at:

Dr Dwarika

Dr Dwarika is a senior lecturer in the faculty of Education and is the Deputy Head of the department of Educational Psychology at the university of Johannesburg. She currently co-ordinates the Masters Ed Psych program and the Professional Doctorate program within the department. Her research interests include

-Postmodern therapies in the South African context

-Trauma informed care

-Psychosocial, emotional and behavioural support in schools.

Daniel Batty

Daniel Batty is a Tech Law Adviser with a LL.B an advanced Certificate in Media Freedom in Africa. His expertise includes ICT contracts, regulatory compliance and research on African tech law and policy. With a passionate about the impact and use of emerging technology on developing societies including drone use, Smart Health, Artificial Intelligence and Social Media usage; Daniel is currently working with End Code.