The Reality of Cyberbullying in South Africa – Trends, Warning Signs and Consequences

The rise of social media and digital communication channels has facilitated the spread of cyberbullying, with platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, Snapchat and gaming chatrooms serving as rife breeding grounds for perpetrators to launch their attacks. Cyberbullying and cyberstalking are defined as the repeated and intentional use of electronic communications to humiliate, intimidate, harass, frighten or threaten another person, explains Candice Toprek, Underwriting Lead: Personal Cyber at iTOO Special Risks.

“Our youth are increasingly exposed to tools and apps that make it very easy for them to produce fake videos or manipulate photos, create memes and or use text to engage in cyberbullying,” she says.

“Adolescents and teenagers are particularly vulnerable, with incidents ranging from online harassment to the malicious sharing of private information or images without their consent. The anonymity afforded by the internet supports perpetrators, exacerbating this problem even further.”

Victims of cyberbullying often experience heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, which can impact their mental health and well-being. Unfortunately, this form of abuse severely affects a child’s identity and self-worth and often leads to long-term negative effects such as the inability to form meaningful and sustainable relationships, as well as trust issues and mental health problems.

“Often parents are completely unaware that their child is being cyberbullied as the victims feel a sense of shame and isolation and believe that the situation will never end. While the consequences of cyberbullying can be profound and long-lasting, affecting both victims and perpetrators, as parents, guardians, or educators, it is essential to remain vigilant and attuned to potential signs of cyberbullying among children and adolescents,” says Toprek.

Some warning signs that may indicate that a child is experiencing cyberbullying include:

  • Emotional distress: sudden mood swings, anxiety, depression or withdrawal from social activities
  • Change in behaviour: noticeable changes in behaviour patterns, such as reluctance to use electronic devices, avoiding certain social media platforms, or secretive behaviour regarding online activities
  • Academic decline: a sudden decline in academic performance or concentration levels
  • Physical symptoms: complaints of headaches, stomach aches or difficulty sleeping without any underlying medical cause might be indicative of the psychological toll of cyberbullying

In South Africa, suicide accounts for 9.5% of all unnatural teen deaths. The National Youth Risk Behaviour Survey shows that 17.6% of teens have considered attempting suicide, while 31.5% of teen suicide attempts required medical treatment.

“In an attempt to proactively prevent victims of cyberbullying from self-harm and suicide, school children can now seek a protective order against their perpetrators. A minor (aged 10 and older) who is found guilty of cyberbullying can face a period of imprisonment,” says Toprek.

She notes that despite various pieces of legislation being in place, including the South African Schools Act, the Cyber Crime Act 2020, the Protection of Harassment Act 2008 and the Child Justice Act 2011, government continues to see a rise in cases of bullying. Additionally, the Department of Basic Education has noted an increase in the number of children committing suicide as a result of persistent bullying.

“It is important to note that the state and educational institutions can be held liable for any damage, injury or loss suffered by a pupil. For example, if the school is made aware of a pupil being bullied but fails to intervene then the school can be held liable for the physical and emotional harm to the victim,” says Toprek.

She says that cyberbullying in South Africa poses a significant threat to the well-being and safety of the country’s youth. By staying informed about its trends, recognising warning signs, and understanding the consequences for victims and perpetrators, proactive steps can be taken to combat destructive behaviour.

“Furthermore, it is imperative that if your child is being cyberbullied the evidence is not destroyed. Ensure that the post, text or image, along with the date and the name of the person who posted it, is always retained,” she says.

“It is time for parents, educators and the broader community to work collaboratively to create a safer online environment where cyberbullying has no place. Together, we can empower our youth to navigate the digital world with resilience, empathy and respect.”


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