teens on cell phone

Pink Shirt Day and Bullying in the Age of COVID-19

Tuesday, February 23, 2021 by Heiky Kwan

The global pandemic has created a highly stressful and confusing environment for our children and teens. When students feel isolated and anxious, it can lead to increased conflict and bullying behaviours among friends and peers, disproportionately affecting those that experience oppression and discrimination in our society.  

This is a greater challenge when bullying becomes harder to spot as friends, youth workers and educators are less able to see visual cues due to social distancing measures. Students may feel like they are suffering alone. 

Increased opportunities for cyberbullying 

Educators are dependent on technology to facilitate more remote learning during this time. Many are using Zoom, Google Classroom, Blackboard, YouTube, Twitch and other online platforms, creating a new digital learning environment for students and parents regardless of their level of comfort or proficiency. People, in general, are also spending more time online since in-person social and recreational activities are cancelled or limited. Many are keeping connected and entertained through online gaming, social media or streaming platforms like YouTube or Netflix. 

An increase in learning and connecting in online-only spaces means increasing chances of hostile interactions or risky situations. According to L1ght, an AI organization that monitors online harassment and hate speech, there has been a 70% increase in cyberbullying during this time of crisis, with a 40% increase in toxicity on online gaming platforms, a 900% increase in xenophobic/ race-based hate speech on Twitter directed towards China and the Chinese and a 200% increase in traffic to hate sites. 

Isolation, fragmented friendships and a decrease in support networks 

Aside from the increased technology use, there are other factors at play that contribute to an increase in cyberbullying. A major crisis puts everyone on edge, and youth are no exception. Bullying may look like rude, hateful, and inappropriate comments, threats, teasing, pranks or the spread of gossip or rumours through social media. But it can also look like ostracism, social exclusion, rejection and other forms of othering a peer.  

Some kids and teens may also have limited access to the Internet, a computer, or are severely limited in what they are permitted to do. This may cause some youth to feel further isolated. They may even lash out toward their peers in frustration especially if they feel like they are missing out or have been kept out of the loop. 

To complicate matters, right now, their connection to the outside world is largely dependent on technology. Many kids and teenagers’ support networks have drastically decreased. Parents are often overwhelmed and have less capacity to engage. It might be more difficult for students to stop by a guidance counsellor's office or talk to their teacher or coach about what's happening. And, they often don't talk to their parents about it either because they are concerned their technology use will be restricted.  

What you can do 

Bullying was already a widespread issue pre-pandemic. According to the Canadian Institute of Health Research, 47% of Canadian parents report having a child who is a victim of bullying. It's important to recognize that kids and teenagers (like adults) are struggling with feelings of isolation and loneliness because they have less opportunities to connect with their friends in person. 

Have open conversations about stress and emotions 

This is an incredibly stressful time. It is important to connect with the teens in your life and talk about how they are feeling. Open and honest conversations about stress and emotions can help kids feel comfortable revealing their experiences and is a great way to engage with your youth. 

This is even more important during the pandemic since meaningful, connective conversations that largely happen in school with teachers, guidance counsellors or coaches, cannot physically happen for students while they are out of school. During this pandemic, stress and mental health conditions may be exacerbated by cyberbullying, particularly among those who have experienced emotional abuse. 

Talk about internet safety and establish guidelines 

Help them feel safe to talk with you about their experiences online. Keep in mind that technology may be the only way that teens are staying in contact with their peers, and many are afraid of losing their access to online platforms and social media accounts if they talk about cyberbullying.  

Be open and let them know that they won’t be losing their access to technology because of their experiences or someone else’s actions. But your trust in them also means that some rules do apply when it comes to staying safe online. It is good to have regular refreshers about internet safety, such as not giving our personal information, avoid talking or playing with strangers online and what content should be shared or viewed. It is also important to talk about the harmful effects of cyberbullying, hate speech or comments, sexting, sharing inappropriate photos, and then develop strategies together to walk away from conflict or risky situations. 

Encourage friendships and connections 

Staying home and not being able to hang out with their friends is especially tough for kids and teenagers who need connections to grow and develop. Though imperfect, it is important to find ways for them to stay in touch with their peers.  

Some suggestions include: 

Having virtual group hangouts 

  • Play online games with friends 
  • Host a virtual sleepover 
  • Draw/ bake/ build Lego together while communicating online 
  • Hold a book club 
  • Go on a socially distanced bike ride 

Having meaningful interactions with others will be good for their mental and emotional health, as well as helps develop their resilience during these tough times. 

Other resources on bullying 

How to Identify Signs of Bullying – 5 Tips for Parents 

The 5 D’s of Bystander Intervention and what you can do when you witness bullying 

Addressing Cyberbullying with Children 

The SEL Resource Finder website provides resources (programs, lessons, books, videos, etc.) aimed at promoting social and emotional learning and positive mental health in educational settings, including resources that address bullying and school violence. 

What Can We Do to End Bullying? - An insightful YWCA discussion with Travis Price from Pink Shirt Day


Learn more about YWCA Youth Education programs. 

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