StatementsOffice of the High Commissioner for Human Rights
Cyberbullying of children
27 September 2023
Nada Al-Nashif United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights
54th session of the Human Rights Council - Panel discussion on cyberbullying against children
Geneva, Palais des Nations, Room XX
Excellencies, distinguished panellists,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Bullying is a serious issue, globally, exacerbated by the use of new technologies and the digital environment: 130 million students, 1 in 3 students from age 13 to 15 actually experience it 1.
The World Health Organization describes bullying in childhood as a major public health concern. It has serious educational, physical, and mental health consequences, both in childhood and adolescence. Children who are subject to bullying are more likely to skip school, they perform less well on tests and can suffer anxiety, fear and emotional distress, sleeplessness, and psychosomatic pain. Some instances of bullying- we have all followed in the media- have triggered suicide among children. Studies also show far-reaching effects extending into adulthood, such as high prevalence of depression and unemployment.
Cyberbullying takes bullying to the digital space. It leaves a digital footprint outside the confines of a specific time or location, such as the school or home. It can involve sending offensive messages to mock or humiliate by e-mail, by text, or through social media, often to a wide audience and with content that remains accessible for a long time. And it can also reach the threshold of threats, blackmail, of intimidation, and exploitation, sometimes involving sexual content.
The Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities consider bullying, including cyberbullying, as a form of violence. The Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recognizes cyberbullying as a form of abuse affecting girls almost twice as much as boys, both as victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying.
According to existing studies, 2 cyberbullying appears – so far- to be an avenue for further victimization of those already experiencing traditional forms of bullying. And addressing it should therefore also target “traditional” (offline) forms of bullying in order for it to have a meaningful impact.
Bullying effectively prevents the enjoyment of a wide range of human rights so it needs to be addressed within the context of States’ obligations, for instance, to respect and protect the right to be free from physical, mental and emotional violence, the right to health, to education but also to freedom of expression and to privacy. Regional human rights courts, such as the Inter-American and the European Courts of Human Rights have found that failure to do so e.g., by not adopting general and specific measures to prevent bullying and cyberbullying, or the lack of due diligence in criminal investigations, constitutes a breach of States’ obligations under human rights law.3
The Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women recommend that States establish national programmes encompassing prevention, early detection mechanisms, intervention protocols, support to child victims and awareness-raising. The research-based anti-bullying program, KiVa,4 developed for schools across Finland, is a successful example. It combines a focus on supporting adolescents’ ability to empathize with victims, to develop anti-bullying attitudes, and increase their level of knowledge about Internet risks and safety in general.
On the other hand, the digital environment should empower children, without leading to overprotection or exclusion. States need to ensure that measures taken against cyberbullying do not infringe upon child’s right to privacy and freedom of expression. One of the dangers of some of these initiatives is the risk of over-reach and censorship of content.
The centrality and power of companies in the online space, means that the role and responsibility of companies that produce such technology and managing platforms is crucial, for example through tools that allow children to manage their own privacy and content as well as through guidelines that moderate such content in line with international human rights standards.
States should ensure that companies address cyberbullying in the context of how children themselves perceive and use digital technologies. In this regard, the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights provides a framework for responsible business conduct in the technology sector.
Central to this is, is of course, the voice of children themselves, and I especially welcome the participation of Santa Rose Mary on our panel today.
This is a complex topic that finds itself at the intersection of several issues:
Human rights issues, I mentioned the right to be free from inhuman or degrading treatment, the rights to health, education, freedom of expression, and privacy.
Digital issues, we are dealing with data protection, digital governance, online content moderation, product design and digital empowerment.
And, of course, policy issues, such as the development of pedagogical, educational and welfare programmes and policies.
To get this right, we need a holistic approach, and must address root-causes - an approach that places the rights and best interests of the child at the centre, focusing both on the child being bullied as well as on the child or adult doing the bullying.
Our discussion today should help us understand better what such a holistic approach to cyberbullying looks like, the various questions that need to be considered from a children’s rights perspective, and good practices to help empower and protect all children everywhere on-line. Thank you.