Challenging the cyberbullies

New London theatre show helped by LSE research

Be that one person prepared to stand up to unkindness. You will never regret being a good friend.

A group of young people on a theatre stage | LSE Connect | CyberbulliesFelix Alexander was a promising 17-year-old sixth form student when, last year, he threw himself under a train near his home town of Worcester after years of bullying by other teenagers. In an open letter published in the local newspaper, his grieving mother Lucy explained that cyberbullying, which often accompanies other forms of harassment and bullying, had contributed to his extreme unhappiness.

She urged others: “Be that one person prepared to stand up to unkindness. You will never regret being a good friend. I have been told that ‘everyone says things they don’t mean on social media’. Unkindness is dismissed as ‘banter’ and because they cannot see the effect of their words they do not believe there is one.”

Mrs Alexander went on to explain that she had tried to get her son to stop using social media as it was causing him so much distress, but that just isolated him further. So she was trying to get the message across that everyone has a collective responsibility to help prevent other young lives being lost.

Research meets theatre

Dr Ellen Helsper, Associate Professor at LSE’s Media and Communications Department and an expert on online interactions, is feeding her research into the script of a West End play due to be performed in October 2017. Cookies, to be staged at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, has been formally endorsed by Dame Judi Dench as a way of “addressing the issues associated with cyberbullying.”

The Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust and the anti-bullying charity Kidscape, worked with students from four London sixth form colleges to create the play through a series of theatre-based workshops which helped provide fresh material for the script. This will then be performed by professional actors.

Dr Helsper played an active role as an expert advisor, working with the director, writer and producer and attending the workshops.She explained: “In the workshops it was very clear that young people often don’t realise that some of the things that they’re doing, that make them popular with their friends or that seem just like fun can have a really big impact on the person on the receiving end. I saw slow change in awareness, that this is not something that is just done by evil people, sometimes we do it without even realising. It’s something that is part of our everyday lives and we are often bystanders. By not interfering or not recognising it, we are part of creating a world in which it is possible."

"What we are trying to do is create awareness amongst young people, to have them feel what it’s like to be on both sides and why you might or might not do something when you’re a bystander. We also want to help create a better understanding for parents who have no idea that this is going on, and teachers who might not really understand the ins and outs of this, but also for everyonewho comes to see it.”

Anti-bullying Week

As well as two performances on 29 October, with possibly more in the pipeline, the aim is to film it for streaming during anti-bullying week – an annual UK event which aims to raise awareness of bullying in schools and elsewhere – on 13 November. Schools and colleges across the UK are expected to take part in the Q&A via social media platforms linked to the project’s website.

Organisers hope to reach tens of thousands of teenagers; they quote the example of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard III which was streamed to more than 30,000 schoolchildren in the UK and beyond in November 2016 with a live Q&A with actor David Tennant and RSC Artistic Director Gregory Doran.

Cyberbullying patterns

Dr Helsper explained how her research has helped in understanding the difficulties for young people who are faced with cyberbullying. “There are certain patterns in the kind of strategies that these young people use. What we call less productive strategies are the ‘ostrich’ strategy and the ‘toughen up’ strategy. The latter tends to be a bit more prevalent in the young male participants in our research and the attitude is that you just have to develop a thick skin and don’t show that you’re affected by it and they will stop. This is one thing that we know doesn’t actually work."

"The other strategy is a total disconnect and we see that a bit more amongst young women where they say ‘I can do without it’. That’s also not a good strategy because social media is important for our wellbeing: it’s where people make connections, where they meet friends, where they find out about exciting things that are happening, where you share, where a lot of the relationships and friendships that we have offline are nurtured.”

Asked whether there was any material from the workshops that really shocked her, she explained: “For me the shocking thing was the reaction when we were playing out these bullying scenarios, where there was victim blaming, such as ‘maybe it’s because you are a little stupid or a little slow’, or ‘if you wear that kind of thing or listen to that type of music then what do you expect?’ Blaming the victim for not being tough enough or not adjusting their behaviour to fit in with social groups was quite shocking for me. I’d heard the stories from those on the receiving end, but less from the people who are observing this happen.”

Dr Helsper helped lead the workshops to create realistic scenarios, she added: “We played out certain scenarios where a young person was bullied and then we asked what would you do to stop this from happening? Someone would insist that they would intervene, but as the leaders of these workshops, we would say ‘OK but is this realistic? Let’s play it as if the person who is doing the bullying is in a group of maybe two or three, is the most popular person of the class who will be organising a big party that everybody wants to go to at the end of the week, who your popularity or confidence depends on being recognised by this person’. It was then that you could see their awareness of this changed and that they understood how difficult it was, and that for me was a really interesting switch.

“Bullying is not new, but with social media it’s the pervasiveness of it, the 24/7 thing that makes it so hard to escape. It’s also the social aspect. Bullying is almost never one on one, it’s almost always a group against an individual and those groups can be very physical groups in the sense of a bunch of friends teaming up with a leader steering them on. Or it could be an anonymous group which we see a lot in relation to sexism and sexual harassment online of women on Twitter for example, where because there are so many voices that are heard doing that and relatively little pushback, it might become seen as acceptable, a social norm.”

Ellen Helsper is Director of Graduate Studies and Associate Professor in the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. 

Image courtesy of Theatre Royal Haymarket Masterclass Trust.