Cruel Intentions: How bullying can be stopped in cyber space

It's National Anti-Bullying week, and organisations like Action Work and the Anti-Bullying Alliance are raising the profile of an ancient evil wearing a very new suit: Cyber-Bullying; when people experience harassment and abuse via the internet, or other information/ communication technologies. It's a foul, horrible way for people to interact, and sadly, it's on the rise; hardly surprising given the speed with which instant messaging, mobile phone use and social network participation has blossomed exponentially. Remember Twitter? Started in 2006. Facebook? Launched in 2004. Even mobile phones themselves weren't part of Everyman's daily luggage until roughly the Millennium.

Communication technology has moved so fast, has created and then colonised new markets so quickly, that our culture struggles to catch up with the impact it has on our daily interactions. Which is where, amongst other residents, the cyber-bully steps in. DfE data from 2003 suggested that even then, approximately 16 children a year in the UK committed suicide due to cyber-bullying. And over two thirds of teenagers surveyed admitted that they had, at some point, been the victims of internet abuse, such as:

  1. Hate messages, where an aggressor leaves a plain threat or insult
  2. Flaming; when a discussion on a forum or website turns nasty, quickly
  3. Identity theft: setting up a social network page for someone without their consent, then posting false opinions under that alias- usually designed to inflame opinion against them , or to instigate trouble between peers
  4. False allegations: claiming, for example, on an anti-racism website, that Person X is a racist, then posting personal details
  5. Releasing private information about that person, to encourage further privacy invasion

And so the grimy list continues. The impact of this can't be stressed enough; I suspect that many people, for whom internet familiarity has come later in life, struggle to see what an impact this can have. That's because young people increasingly identify themselves socially with their on-line personae; so when an attack is launched at them on-line, it's experienced as a direct attack on their identity, their relationship with their peers, and their reputation. After all, cyber-bullying doesn't just affect the intended victim; it also has an impact on the friends or peers of the victim who witness the attack. Just like a conventional assault.

What can schools do to help combat this?

There are a number of excellent websites and resources available to schools in order for them to address this, but I suggest the following strategies as a good start:

1. Take it seriously. Cyber-bullying can be a living Hell for the children who experience it, so don't pretend that it's just a few nasty words in the playground. Comments can stay on-line for a long time; children often accept rumour and allegations as gospel, so lies become truths and damn the victim, especially when they are hurtful and personal.
2. Have a school policy. This has been a requirement in all UK schools since the 2006 Educations and Inspections Act, although not every school has one yet. Of course, a policy is worthless if it isn't enacted, but it's a start; it shows that the problem has at least been thought about. And of course, it lends itself to public scrutiny and discussion, particularly when it isn't sufficiently versatile or realistic.
3. Netiquette. Every school should be teaching their children about what is acceptable practise in cyber-communications and what isn't. Teachers mustn't be afraid of laying down the law with regards to this: children will take their behavioural cues from somewhere, and it's best if it's from a responsible adult and not the loudest mouth in the chatroom. This can take place in IT lessons, assemblies, PAL lessons, RS, Citizenship- anywhere, in fact that issues of responsibility are discussed. For example:
  • a) Never post something in a public area that you wouldn't be happy to share with the whole world
  • b) Never give out personal information about yourself on an open forum: address, phone number, where you'll be, when you're alone...
  • c) Remember who your real friends are: kids' self-esteem is so deeply wrapped up with their peers, that they can race each other for friends added in the popularity contest of adolescence. But block-adding means that people you aren't close to can see your thoughts and feelings...and can get in touch with you.
  • d) Sort out your security settings: every social network site has settings that can be modified to allow varying levels of access to varying circles of friendship. In my opinion, some sites have a long way to go in order to make this sufficiently simple- naming no names, but in my Book, some sites need to Face up to their responsibilities towards children and make the settings easier to access and amend.
  • e) Don't respond to vicious attacks; save them as evidence.
4. Teaching children how to deal with Cyber-Bullying. This means encouraging them to report it whenever it happens. The irony is that cyber-bullying leaves a forensic trail you can see from space: Service Providers, the Police, and sometimes even in-school IT technicians can track down a post to practically the nearest metre, and usually to a specific terminal. Mobiles too. The bullies can almost always be caught- IF they are investigated. This means telling pupils that they can respond to this, and they don't need to be victims. And it also means having a network of teachers in the school that vulnerable children feel they can trust with the information; after all, many victims internalise their anguish, often blaming themselves. And the Child Protection Officer (CPO- every school should have one) needs to be one of the first ports of call after it's been reported.
5. Get the parents involved. If I had a child that was being insulted, harassed and bullied by some mysterious cowards, I'd imagine I'd like to know about it. Schools mustn't shy away from this- and they mustn't pretend it's not serious. For some pupils, it's a matter of life and death.

Bullying has always been with us; in fact, until the seventies, it was accepted by many in the UK as an inevitable part of growing up, as if Lord of the Flies was the typical youth dynamic. Well, it may be inevitable- maybe even a part of human nature- but that doesn't mean we don't do anything about it. The new technologies present this old problem in novel and complex ways: the victim can often become part of a network of avenging bullies, retaliating against the original attacker, quickly involving others. Blame can often be difficult to assess- who started it? Who's the real victim? And of course, the anonymity of the internet and SIM cards can mean that conventional barriers to antisocial behaviour- customs, fear of retaliation- are removed, and aggression is easier to express. But that anonymity is a shade; an illusion, IF the victim gets the right support to track down the harasser, and IF the victim's guardians take the event as seriously as the victim does.

Finally, the best thing teachers and schools can do is to model good methods of communication between themselves and their pupils, and being role models for how to speak maturely, and how to resolve conflict, and disagreement. If we can train children how to express themselves with wisdom and kindness, or at least tolerance and manners, then we will have helped them in more ways than one.


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