The General Teaching Council for Scotland

The toxic impact of online bullying

Hugh Smith advocates the continuance of a restorative approach to support learner mental health and wellbeing.

restorative solutions - preventionMental and/or physical trauma can lead to a number of mental health problems including anxiety, dissociation, stress, self-harm, behaviour challenges, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress and serious mental illness.

Teachers play a crucial role in supporting learner mental health and wellbeing and much has been done in recent times to unpick the principles and practice of learner health and wellbeing, and in revising establishments’ learning and teaching ethos within the communities they serve.

Bullying and the solution-based approaches to minimise and eliminate this, are now well established in education settings. Refreshed strategies are required to be revisited frequently with solution-based approaches shared widely across the learning and teaching community.

Cyber bullying or cyber harassment (also collectively known as online bullying) has developed at an alarming rate. Colleagues may believe that cyber bullying is just a modern form of bullying and that existing strategies remain valid to deal with occurrences that may happen. Although there may be similarities between “bullying” and “cyber bullying” with some strategies remaining effective for both, cyber bullying is a negative mental health and wellbeing trigger that requires a distinct response and strategy.

restorative solutions - values and normsIn unpicking this distinction, perhaps we could remind ourselves of what we mean by bullying. Bullying is recognised as a form of face-to-face aggressive behaviour with the aim of inflicting physical or mental trauma on an individual. The bully derives a sense of power (and sometimes pleasure) in causing emotional and psychological difficulties for the victim. In some cases, the victim can evolve into a bully if strategies to eradicate this behaviour trait are not implemented.

Cyber bullying is distinctly different as the victim may not know who the perpetrator is: the cyber bully may use a constructed image or made-up name. This anonymity adds an additional dimension to the cyber bully’s power over the victim. Visual gratification of the bullying act is part of what a bully would seek from a face-to-face encounter, but visual gratification for a cyber bully is different as they receive visual gratification through the reading of electronic texts or image responses from the victim, and in some cases enhanced visual gratification received through the actions to leave physical items for the cyber bully in places that are secret to both them and the victim.

restorative solutions - early interventionWhat is important to note is that in the early stages, a cyber bully believes they are not causing physical and/or mental harm to their victim and may indeed interact well in a face-to-face setting with them. So cyber bullying can be difficult to detect. However, if this remains unchecked or resolved then the cyber bullying behaviour loses anonymity and transforms into the known physical world of the victim. We then have a situation controlled by a very experienced cyber bully turned bully.

A restorative solution-based approach is the preferred option in developing a whole organisational response strategy. However, in addressing the instances or the development of online bullying, what should be avoided is the exclusion of technology in enhancing learning and teaching experiences. Learners require to become familiar with the constraints of the use of technology (including why it is important not to use technology in any cyber harassment activity).

Restorative solutions involve four key areas:

  • Values, norms and assumptions – changing culture through the development and implementation of positive organisational ethos.
  • Prevention – implementation of effective practices that focus on changing the culture of an establishment to provide a safe and caring environment for learners.
  • Early intervention – addressing misconduct and reinforcing behavioural ‘norms’; preventing the development of more serious behavioural challenges.
  • Formal intervention – confirmation that a learner has committed a serious offence and that they have serious psychological and other challenges.

restorative solutions - formal interventionMost colleagues engage with elements of restorative solutions in relation to their organisation’s current policies and procedures. However, best practice suggests that reviewing existing practice in relation to emerging advice will ensure that effective solution-based approaches are implemented.  

Through the continuing collaborative professional engagement of colleagues, online bullying within education settings should have no future impact on learner mental health and wellbeing. 


Hugh Smith is an experienced teacher educator, author and speaker who provides mental health and wellbeing consultancy for schools, colleges and universities. Colleagues can email him at and find out more at

Supplementary reading

Smith H, McGrandles A (2018) The Impact of Mental Health and Wellbeing on Effective Learning and Teaching: A Practical Guide for Those Responsible for Learners. (Book 1) Scotland: Swan and Horn [ISBN 978-1- 909675-05-6]

Smith H, McGrandles A (2018) The Impact of Mental Health and Wellbeing on Effective Learning and Teaching: A Practical Guide for Those Responsible for Learners. (Book 2) Scotland: Swan and Horn [ISBN 978-1- 909675-06-3]

Online resources