Before COVID-19 reached our shores, many educators in the post-school education and training sector were not convinced of the need for online learning. After all, practical, hands-on experience has always formed the foundation of vocational training.
However, the restrictions imposed on in-person learning due to the pandemic forced many lecturers to revise their views on online learning, as online learning technology rapidly became the main mode of delivery in higher education. Students are increasingly learning remotely and attending in person in the classroom on a rotational basis, if at all.
All indications are that today’s tech-savvy youth are adapting well to the new modes of learning. However, the increased use of online technology comes with new challenges, such as the psychosocial impacts of a drastic reduction in physical contact and in-person, real-time communication and the impact on health and well-being of reduced physical activity and exercise that comes with spending more time indoors.
Another challenge increasingly experienced online, particularly by users of social media platforms, is cyberbullying. People of all ages, students and employees, are being subjected to bullying behaviour. Except for the point of contact being virtual, cyberbullying is identical in intent and effect to physical experiences of bullying in the classroom, office, sports field or playground.
Cyberbullies use technology to access, harass, threaten, embarrass or otherwise target a person to cause hurt and fear and damage reputations. The weapons used are text messages, emails, photos, videos and website postings. The clever ones use provocative tags, messages and images to pique interest on social media platforms and ensure that attacks can rapidly go viral and inflict maximum damage. In many cases, the perpetrator, who may not even be in the same country as the victim, hides behind aliases and fake identities and cannot be physically confronted. They are aided by the fact that many countries have been slow to criminalise cyberbullying and even in those that have, there have been few successful prosecutions of cyberbullies. South Africa recently passed the Cybercrimes Act but it has not yet come into effect.
The damage caused by cyberbullying is largely psychological and reputational and the effects can be devastating, ranging from anger, embarrassment and loss of confidence to anxiety, depression and even suicide.
College communities have a responsibility to cultivate and promote a climate of respect and tolerance. No student has the right to bully others and every student is entitled to a nurturing, supportive and protected learning environment. It is critical to educate students to be able to look out for signs of cyberbullying, to know how to deal with it, and how and where to seek help if attacked.
Dumisani Lutweyi, the Student Support Services Manager, and the Student Representative Council of False Bay TVET College have initiated an anti-cyberbullying strategy. A three-week awareness campaign was rolled out on social media platforms supported by WhatsApp posts, posters and student face-to-face advocacy. Each week was associated with a different theme: ‘What is Cyberbullying’, ‘How to break the cycle’ and ‘What are the consequences’.
Emphasising the College’s zero-tolerance approach, Lutweyi says: “As per the College Student Code of Conduct, no intimidation, physical or emotional threats or bullying will be tolerated. Corrective measures will be taken against the perpetrator and with the support of Campus Student Support Officers, we will continue to look at measures to eradicate all types of bullying, look at corrective behavioural measures for accomplices and support those who have been wronged.”
Expressing the support of the SRC, Executive Secretary, Carin Rudolph, says: “Social media has become one of the biggest platforms where people are being shamed and hurt by others. By standing together we can break the cycle of hurtful behaviour. We need to step up to end cyberbullying. It’s never too late to be kind.”
Students who have been victimised or wish to report the victimisation of others can contact the Student Support Services office. There are also Higher Health coordinators on some of the campuses and a 24-hour hotline to call for psychosocial support. Higher Health can be contacted at 0800 36 36 36 or SMS 43336.