The Dark Side of Digitalization: Cyberbullying in the European Union

Monday, May 15, 2023

The Dark Side of Digitalization: Cyberbullying in the European Union

During the last European Parliament plenary in Strasbourg (8-11 May), the MEPs reacted to Commissioner Reynders report on cyberbullying and called for an EU Directive to prevent and punish it.

Cyberbullying, or the use of technology to repeatedly harass, shame or intimidate someone, is a growing concern across the globe. Examples include posting embarrassing photos of someone on social media, spreading lies or rumors about someone’s private life, sending hurtful messages or threats, impersonating someone or sending hurtful messages to others on their behalf. In Europe, the rise of social media and other online platforms has led to an increase in cyberbullying incidents in recent years, especially among young people. Victims of cyberbullying are often traumatized, sometimes ending up taking their own lives. We want to examine this phenomenon in Europe, as well as the legislation in place to prevent and punish it.

According to a 2019 survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), around one in three young people (27%) aged 15 to 29 in the European Union have experienced cyberbullying in the five years preceding the survey. While the prevalence of cyberbullying is similar in women and men, the data looks vastly different in the case of bullying of a sexual nature, a higher percentage of women being affected. The percentages also increase when the victim is part of a minority (disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation etc.). The EU Member States with the highest number of recorded cases of harassment in general are France, The Netherlands and Germany. A meta-analysis of studies and surveys conducted in Europe referencing cyberbullying in particular found that Poland has the highest incidence across board (31.5%), followed by the Czech Republic (18.6%) and Romania (15.4%).

These are worrisome statistics, and it is heartbreaking to see how severely teens and youth are impacted. There have been several studies as well as public personal stories about the ways cyberbullying affects someone’s mental health; from anxiety, depression, substance use, headaches to suicidal thoughts. In last week’s debate on the European Parliament plenary floor, MEPs have acknowledged and welcomed Mrs. Jackie Fox from Ireland, the mother of Nicole “Coco” Fox, the young woman who took her own life in 2018 after being abused physically and online for three years. Mrs. Fox has since advocated relentlessly for legislation in Ireland which would punish cyberbullying. Ireland passed 'Coco’s law' in 2021 which would punish a perpetrator who distributes private/intimate images of another person without consent with up to seven years in prison. The Members of the European Parliament have expressed willingness and resolve to adopt similar legislation at EU level. The Commission has frequently repeated that acts which are illegal or criminal in real life should be illegal online as well; the Digital Services Act has attempted to prescribe exactly that, but MEPs have urged a stricter and more robust enforcement.

Cyberbullying or cyber-harassment often shares the three main characteristics of traditional bullying: intentionality, repetition, and power imbalance, but it also presents additional features and differences. Embarrassing or intimate photo/video material, edited images or deepfakes once posted online can be viewed by thousands or millions, further disseminated and very difficult to completely erase. So while the initial posting act is not repeated, the effect is multiplied manifold and thus, more considerable. The power imbalance may also look different. While real-life bullying usually involves a bigger, stronger kid picking on a smaller, frailer one, or an intimidating man harassing a woman in public spaces, in the online world, physical strength is irrelevant. Digital skills and proficiency, however, play an important role and that could constitute the power imbalance. The aspect which makes most people dread and fear cyber-bullying is the anonymous aspect of it. In case of schoolyard or classroom bullying, the victim has the option to leave the space of the perpetrator and the bully may be restricted, fired, fined or punished. In the virtual world there is no place a victim can run and hide, there is no way to know if the perpetrator is one person or a group, reporting it to the authorities often proves futile as IPs can be masked and location hidden. This compounds the stress, anxiety and despair a victim can feel. Studies cited show also that the more time a person spends online and engages on various platforms (gaming, social media, dating apps, instant messaging etc.) the higher chances to be tormented by a cyberbully. The pandemic exacerbated this by forcing almost all of our activities to digital, including schooling, shopping, socializing. 

Parents, cyber-bullying victims and legislators all agree that more needs to be done in order to prevent and stop this ugly phenomenon. With the advent of the Metaverse upon us, concerned voices say it might get much worse unless we have strong laws in effect and strict enforcement. The majority of the MEPs taking the floor in the debate last Wednesday called for a EU directive and enforceable punishments for perpetrators, since this is a crime transcending borders. In addition to strong legislation, more advocacy and funding for mental health should be taken into account. Teenagers and youth need to be given the space and tools to feel comfortable reporting bullying and to feel supported in the process of healing. Schools, universities, parents and counselors, as well as authorities and lawmakers need to be part of this bigger conversation about safety online, about privacy and boundaries, about mental health and fostering empathy. One of our very own members recently went through the heartbreaking experience of seeing his daughter being bullied online and offline and descending to a dark, suicidal space. ECPM is standing in solidarity with our affected members and their families and we condemn and fight the scourge of bullying and cyberbullying until it is eradicated from our societies.

Head Office

Bergstraat 33
3811 NG Amersfoort
The Netherlands
+31 33 304 0011

Brussels Office

Belliardstraat 205
1040 Brussels
+32 22 301 300

Receive the monthly ECPM newsletter.

* indicates required
From 2010 on, the activities of the ECPM are financially supported by the European Parliament. The liability for any communication or publication by the ECPM, in any form and any medium, rests with the ECPM. The European Parliament is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.