Picture a schoolyard, students standing in a circle around a girl or boy, being mocked for his or her clothes and possibly being shoved by some of the other students. A classic example of bullying, you might think. Now imagine this same behaviour – but happening in the devices in your children’s hands, in their bedrooms and around the clock. This is bullying of the 21st century, more invasive, maybe harder to notice, unless you know where to look, and increasingly common across hyper-connected Asia – cyberbullying.

Internet gateways are swinging open across Asia, sending our children out into an exciting, interactive world of new knowledge and experiences. Today, digital skills have become crucial in not only shaping children’s social life but potentially their future professional lives also. While children today need to know how to make the best of the opportunities in the online world, they should also understand and learn to deal with risks, such as online bullying.

Our children are the keenest explorers of the online world, and it is up to all of us to help them develop the skills needed to be smart online, to use their heads (and hearts) when interacting in the digital space and to know when they need to involve a parent or an authority. With June 16 marking Stop Cyberbullying Day, I encourage everyone to get educated on the new reality our children are facing, and help them deal with the risks of being online. Social media - the new virtual schoolyard

As more children in Asia are expected to be online in the years to come, some estimates say 500 million by 2020; the occurrence of cyberbullying is likely to increase. Cyberbullying happens through text messages, e-mails, instant messaging services like Messenger, WhatsApp and Snapchat, in addition to social media networks like Facebook and Instagram.

These networks have seen an immense growth in users in Asia over the last years; both Instagram and Snapchat users in the Asia-Pacific countries have doubled only from 2014 to 2016. Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA)’s statistics show that more than 139.6 million Pakistanis are mobile phone users and over 45.5 million are subscribed to mobile broadband services. This has increased their access to social media platforms including Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram etc. The number of Facebook users stood at 25 million in 2016. On one hand, the enhanced access to the digital world has opened up new windows of opportunities but on the other hand it has given way to certain menaces such as cyberbullying.However, the phenomenon of cyberbullying in social media is far from new; in 2013 a report stated that 87 percent of teenagers had witnessed cyberbullying on Facebook, and some 20 per cent on Twitter. Many children experience cyberbullying in some form; as victim or bully, or often as a bystander. Indeed, one can say that the schoolyard now encompasses social media.

Your kids and cyberbullying – consequences and tips

Cyberbullying differs from “traditional” bullying in several ways; cyberbullies hide behind screens, and are more likely to say harsher things when not facing the victim in person. This perceived anonymity, combined with the permanence of potentially offensive items like photos or videos online, intensifies the psychological and emotional effects which victims of cyberbullying may suffer. Being bullied online is also sometimes very public and can be shared with a large audience in only a matter of seconds. And lastly, it’s always there. You can leave the physical schoolyard, but it’s much more difficult to turn off the digital world. With that, here are some of the ways parents can help prevent or mitigate such experiences:

Learn about the virtual realities of your child’s world; go online. Think about what values you want to foster in your children and about your own activity on social media.

Assure them that they can confide in you and trust and listen to them when they do. Bullying can be hard to talk about. Include them in the solution; this will give them the confidence to handle future situations of cyberbullying. Specify actions to handle the bullying, such as shutting outthe online bully. In fact, seven out of ten teens say that thisis the most effective method of prevention.

In recent years, many initiatives on cyberbullying have been formed by partnerships between governments, NGOs and private companies in Asia. The goals of such programmes are to educate parents and students on cyberbullying and provide them tools to act safely and empathetically online. In order to systemically address the issue, we need to promote widespread awareness about cyberbullying and its impacts on children. Sensitizing people about the issue would inspire action on collective level, shrinking the operating space for cyber bullies. Moreover, educating and empowering the parents about parenting in a hyper connected worldcan be really useful as they are usually the closest to the child and can address the issue right in time. The initiative can be enhanced in scale and impact with the right backing and legislation by the state to bring down the frequency of such incidents manifolds.

Empathy is a word that we should all impart on our children, our students and our stakeholders because everyone – whether bully, victim or bystander, whether digital service provider, NGO or government – everyone has a role to play in making sure the online world is a safe place for all. And empathy and awareness are our two strongest tools.