While social media has so many positives – like bringing together a community of people – it can also have negative consequences – such as a higher risk of cyberbullying. Bullying in school (or college) is another travail for Generation Z. However, two young sisters who have fallen prey to different forms of bullying in the past, decided to tackle the menace and reach out to others with an inclusive movement they are calling StoptheB.
Switzerland-based Vasundhara and Riddhi Oswal (22 and 16 years respectively), daughters of industrialist Pankaj Oswal from the Oswal business family, turned the pain of being bullied into a positive movement that is proactively involving youngsters like them. Their campaign StoptheB has found supporters like football star Ronaldinho and US-based academician Dr Hinduja.
Kids and teens are spending more time online than ever before, since online classes and social media use have increased with the pandemic. A recent report by UNESCO found that in the last month, one in three young people have been bullied. In an exclusive interview with The CSR Journal from their home in Switzerland, the Oswal sisters spoke candidly about their personal experiences with bullying, and what Generation Z and parents can do about it.
1. When did your family move to Switzerland from Australia?
Riddhi and Vasundhara: Our family has been living and travelling between many countries, but both of us have been studying in Switzerland since 2013. Since Australia, we have spent increasingly more time in Switzerland and are building a beautiful home here.
2. How did your personal experiences with bullying lead to StopTheB?
Riddhi: A few years ago, I was bullied at school by other students in my batch. The incidents, which started as in-person mocking and taunting then escalated into cyberbullying (including racist comments about my Indian ethnicity and background), eventually followed by physical threats by the harassers.
During this time, I noticed that other students would see what was happening at school and online, but would not step in to help or take action. This could have been because they were scared that they also might become the target or because teachers or parents would not take them seriously.
Vasundhara: Most young people are scared to step in when they see bullying because they think it may make them a target or teachers and parents may also blame them. But academics have said that when someone else steps in and says something, 57% of the time the bullying stops within ten seconds. Because of this, we decided to start a movement to encourage other young people to become what we call ‘active bystanders’ to change the mindset of our generation and remove the stigma of intervening.
“An active bystander is basically someone who steps up, intervenes or even reports bullying rather than watching it and ‘letting it happen’.”
Riddhi: The other thing I realised when I was bullied, is that there was no common place for people who have experienced similar things to come forward and share their story. It’s like you should sit in silence and just accept the situation.
3. How did bullying negatively impact you?
Riddhi: Being bullied was a horrible experience and something no one should have to go through. To begin with, the bullying was mainly in-person – this included other students mocking and taunting me about things like mine and my family’s d background, my ethnicity and personal beliefs, which is actually considered a hate crime in some countries. This made me upset and anxious. My parents and I approached many teachers and school management, but they did not do anything to help.
4. Riddhi, you were also the victim of cyberbullying…
Riddhi: Ultimately the school even lowered my evaluation grades and cancelled my re-enrollment without proper justification – essentially expelling me. This made it even worse as the bullies then began to believe they were right and share mean posts about me on social media and online group chats. This was upsetting and the fact that it was all online meant it was hard for me to ignore. Eventually, I had to even leave these group chats to try and get away from it all.
After that, the harassers found out the new school I was joining and made it their agenda to find the kids who would be my new classmates. They started spreading rumours about me even before I joined the new school. No one there wanted to talk to me, because of all the hate and rumours they had spread.
This was hard as it felt like it was impossible to get away from the bullies, even when I was alone and in the comfort of my own home as I would be reminded of it every time I logged into my social media accounts. Eventually, the harassers went so far as to make physical threats towards me. This experience had a huge impact on my mental wellbeing. I was living under constant anxiety because of which I had started suffering panic attacks and developed trouble sleeping.
5. How did you cope with all the negativity?
Riddhi: My sister and I were determined to turn this negative experience into a positive one and create an inclusive platform to help people overcome bullying. Sometimes the best way to fight your fears is to help others with theirs. I wanted StoptheB to be a platform to bring awareness and empower other children who have been bullied.
There are so many children and teens in the world who do not even understand what they are going through and are unable to justify the way they are feeling because of the lack of awareness on bullying. Many of them don’t know when they are being passive bystanders to a bullying situation and that the fact that they are potentially doing something wrong.
6. In what ways are you reaching out to Generation Z?
Vasundhara: As proud members of Generation Z, we wanted to make sure that StoptheB was made specifically for young people and teens. Because of that, we have tried to make StopTheB as interactive as possible. This includes running competitions such as the #activebystander challenge on our online page that encourages correct behaviour amongst our generation and featuring other children’s stories on our online page to encourage other young people from across the world to tell their story with our community with the aim of removing the negative stigma attached to speaking about bullying.
7. You have also created a short film about bullying.
Riddhi and Vasundhara: We wanted to create a video which drew attention to the issue of bullying and the negative impact it can have on young people. As many victims will know, bullying is way too common. For example, according to Dr Sameer Hinduja – a supporter of StopTheB and Co-director of the Cyberbullying Research centre in the USA – out of a sample of 5,000 US students, 52% had been bullied in the last 30 days before they were surveyed.
The video was made to draw attention to this issue. We also wanted to share a message that sometimes the impact of bullying is not visible to outsiders. A lot of people who are bullied suffer from low-self-confidence, anxiety or even depression.
8. What is the incentive for winners?
Vasundhara: We wanted to create a movement that was as inclusive and as fun as possible to reach the wider Gen Z population internationally. We want to help raise awareness of bullying and highlight ways in which we can all play a part in stopping it. That’s one of the reasons why we have started online competitions and giveaways.
The Make Good challenge is the latest part of StoptheB. It asks people to look back on a situation in which a classmate or a friend was being bullied, and they – as passive bystanders – didn’t do or say the right thing, and in retrospect, wished they had acted differently.
Anyone can join in, simply by filling out one of our Make Good notes on the StopTheB website and writing a message to the person they want to make things right with.
The winners will be the two most genuine and courageous apologies we find. The incentive to participate is the chance to win a prize worth up to 50% of their tuition fees. We believe this is a great way to help spread StopTheB’s positive message. We want to encourage people to reflect on their previous actions or inactions, as well as support access to education, and make a change in their action when in a similar situation in the future.
9. How can one become an active bystander?
Riddhi: In order to be an active bystander, it is important that we are all aware of social situations which don’t feel quite right – like seeing someone posting nasty or inappropriate comments on social media or to someone’s face – and then speak up against those situations.
“One can be an active bystander by speaking out against the bullying – even if the bully is one of your friends. If you don’t feel comfortable doing so, tell a parent or a teacher.”
We encourage our followers to speak about their experiences and stories. This will help them feel supported, and help bystanders develop empathy towards people being bullied, and therefore encourage them to speak up. People can also follow StopTheB’s social media pages where they can learn other useful tips for being an active bystander.
10. StopTheB has found many supporters, including Dr Sameer Hinduja and footballer Ronaldinho. How did they come on board?
Vasundhara: Stop the B is lucky to have partnered with some top academics who are experts in the anti-bullying space. This includes Dr Sameer Hinduja in the US (editor, The Bullying Journal), and Dr Zoe Moody (a leading academic on anti-bullying in Switzerland). We are working with them both to ensure that we share suggestions that are backed by credible academic studies.
As well as this, we’re grateful to have received support on social media from footballer Ronaldinho, who recently posted a video talking about StopTheB. His support has been great for helping us spread our message and show the importance that we should all act now to help stop bullying.
However, our goal is not just to have celebrity support. We want to try and encourage as many young people to join our movement and promote real-life changes. We would love to collaborate on StoptheB with celebrities that believe in our cause, who themselves stand up and speak out when they witness bullying and have the same passion for this cause that we do.
11. What do you feel about the trolling teen singer Billie Eilish got for her candid pictures?
Riddhi and Vasundhara: It’s really sad and unfair when anyone is bullied, especially when it’s for their appearance. Bullying is never okay no matter who it is. Given their status, the bullying of celebrities is often the kind spoken about in the media the most. These people have huge followings and thousands of fans and people to support them and hear what they have to say.
“Our focus at StopTheB is the regular young person who has no following and whose voice may not be heard. Just because they don’t have one million Instagram followers doesn’t mean their story of bullying is any less serious or of lesser importance.”
Cyberbullying is sadly something that affects millions of young people across the globe and it can affect us at any time – wherever we are – because of social media. Even picking up our phone and checking our messages can make us feel worried or nervous about what could be said about us online.
12. What should parents do to recognise that their child is being bullied?
Vasundhara: It is really important for parents to keep a careful eye on their kids to spot the signs of bullying and communicate with them. This might include their child being afraid to go to school, having trouble sleeping, or appearing anxious or upset. These are just a few examples – sometimes there may be harder signs to spot.
If you think your kids are being bullied, it is also important to assure them that they can talk to you about anything. As bullying can be upsetting for teens, it’s also important not to dismiss their experience.
Riddhi: In my case, I was lucky that I have a close relationship with my parents, so they listened to me and took me seriously when I told them what was happening.
Riddhi and Vasundhara: The first step is definitely for parents to speak to their kids so they can learn more about what is going on. Then, parents should look if they can speak to the parents of the bully, or their child’s friends to intervene. As a parent, it’s important that you speak to your child before taking any action, to make sure you don’t make things worse.
After that, it might be a good idea to get support from the school, if that’s where it’s happening. For example, parents could have a group call with a teacher to explain what the issue is and what you would like them to do.
It can sometimes take a bit of time for the school to deal with the problem, so it’s a good idea if parents stay in touch with their kids’ teachers so they can learn about how the situation is being dealt with regularly. It’s important for your child to know that they can and should talk to you every day and they are not alone. It’s the duty of parents and teachers to provide children with a safe learning environment, and that includes emotional safety as well.
The Oswal Sisters’ top 3 tips to handle cyberbullying
– Don’t react. Ask the bullies to stop. Retaliating could make the situation worse and you don’t want to stoop to their level. Having said that, it’s important to be polite yet firm.
– Take a screenshot of the post. If there’s something upsetting you, take a screenshot in case you choose to report it, so you can show it to a friend, teacher or parent.
– Report the comment. If you can, tell someone you trust or who you feel may be able to act. This may be a teacher or a friend who is in a position to help. You can even report it to the social media platform itself.