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Difficult to monitor effectively, often untraceable assailants, victims who will likely never speak out.

How does one protect against Cyber Bullying?

Defining the Problem:

In a recent doctoral thesis, Cyber Bullying has been defined as:

“the use of information and communication technologies to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or group that is intended to harm others.” Other academic definitions include the “willful and repeated harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text.”

This harm then can be inflicted through social media, email, instant messaging or text. Of course not all unpleasant messages, on all platforms, constitute bullying, but the phenomenon does take many forms.

How it plays out: Recognised forms of cyber bullying include:

  • Flaming – Online fights using electronic messages containing angry or vulgar language;
  • Harassment – Repeatedly sending nasty, mean and insulting messages;
  • Denigration – ‘Dissing’ or disrespecting someone online; sending or posting gossip or rumours about a person to damage his or her reputation or friendships;
  • Impersonation – Pretending to be someone else and sending or posting material to get that person in trouble or damage their reputation;
  • Outing – Sharing someone’s secrets or embarrassing information or images online;
  • Exclusion – Intentionally and cruelly excluding someone.

Prevalence of the Problem:

Owing to the lack of rules and supervision online, reliable statistics are hard to come by. Research as far back as 2011 revealed 36% of learners in South African primary and secondary schools had experienced some form of Cyber Bullying.  A recent study of South African parents found 25% had known of their own child being bullied online, while 54% confirmed they knew of a child in their community suffering the same hardship. Often victims will keep quiet and withdraw from certain groups, activities or commitments as a result of the shame endured.

While there is clear psychological harm to the victim, retaliation and group participation also need to be taken into account. Victims may experience low self-esteem, social withdrawal, academic problems and delinquent behaviour. To a group, the prevalence of bullying often leads to an unsafe feeling when interacting with other learners at school. The ‘anonymity’ of interacting online removes inhibitions and perpetrators may come to believe there will be no consequences for their actions. It must be kept in mind that making defamatory statements about someone on social media carries the same consequences as printing them, in terms of the law of defamation, and so civil liability can be incurred.

How to Deal with the Problem:

Many responses have been put forward of how best to deal with Cyber Bullying and sexting in South Africa. In general, we explore solutions to bullying in a related article here and address the legal framework surrounding bullying in another article here. This form of Bullying may also, in a criminal context, constitute hate speech, criminal defamation. The provisions of RICA and ECTA do grant the State some powers to track and monitor these communications, so the ‘anonymity’ is more an illusion than reality.

The Department of Basic Education has provided a useful framework which includes draft ICT policies. Each school should adopt some form of policy within their code of conduct. The Protection of Personal Information Act, 4 of 2013 (POPIA) has numerous policies which can, if adhered to properly, prevent the dissemination of personal information which may be compromising or harmful. Educators, parents and learners should familiarise themselves with this framework and what is required of them going forward.

All social media platforms have a method of blocking persons, deleting posts and reporting abuse. These safety mechanisms are constantly being updated. Being aware of what is possible and using these tools as soon as they arise can often stem the spread of offensive or abusive content.

Sexting is an issue:

Photo by Giorgia De Lots on Unsplash

This is an unfortunate problem. Images or video depicting a learner’s nudity may well be dispersed if sent or found by the wrong individual. This is regardless of the original intent or recipient of the images. Any legal response to this phenomenon will likely fall within the ambit of child pornography, which is prohibited in terms of the Films and Publications Act, 65 of 1996, the Films and Publications Amendment Act,3 of 2009 and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, 32 of 2007. Quite simply, this form of Outing or Denigration between students would be a criminal offence. Learners should be warned of the possible charges for this and crimen iniuria.


Firstly, being informed of the dangers, both legal and psychological in this space would be the best deterrent. For learners to not engage and to create a counter-culture of not engaging in Cyber-Bullying would go a long way towards dealing with the problem.  This requires frank discussions with learners, parents and educators. Secondly, a restorative justice approach, to handle incidences when they arise with a thorough and effective method, would be most helpful to assist both the perpetrator and the victim. Online Tools provide a further mechanism to assist victims in real-time. Legal consequences, through means of criminal charges, protection from harassment interdicts and the like should be a last, yet stern, resort.

Photo by Norwood Themes on Unsplash


Thank you for reading, we hope this has brought some light and hope to a dark area. This is not intended to be legal advice specific to your circumstances, but is published for informative purposes. Kindly visit our website to get in touch: or visit our facebook page to follow what we’re up to. Copyright Reserved. Links and images used under a fair-use policy.


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