What is cyberbullying?
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What is cyberbullying?

Cyberbullying became a major subject last year after a number of teen suicides linked to social network Ask.fm. But what is it, and how can we prevent young people from abusing each other online?

Cyberbullying hit the headlines last year with a spate of teen suicides linked to social network Ask.fm. But what is it, and how can we prevent young people from abusing each other online?

While it might be an unacceptable facet of society, bullying has been around for as long as those most ugly of motivators: hatred, peer pressure and intolerance. The only trouble now is that, over the past decade, insults once slung across a playground have extended into virtual territory.

Although there is no legal definition in the UK, cyberbullying is described in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘the use of electronic communication to bully a person, typically by sending messages of an intimidating or threatening nature’.

Following the arrival of this dark phenomenon, governments, teachers and parents are struggling to monitor the myriad ways in which young people interact online. From WhatsApp to Instagram and Skype to Snapchat, communication amongst ‘Generation Z’ is fragmented and constantly migrating from one platform to another. And, unfortunately for the victims, the bullying no longer ends as soon as the bell rings.

A recent report by Estyn, the education watchdog for Wales, found that a rise in cyberbullying was a growing concern for most secondary schools, presenting forms of bullying ‘unfamiliar to some staff’. It claimed there was a wide disparity in terms of how bullying is dealt with at schools and made recommendations including better supervision and buddy systems or peer support for those targeted.

The latter is an approach being championed by BeatBullying, a bullying prevention charity based in the UK. Young people are trained to be ‘BB Mentors’ who support and give advice to peers in school and online on how to deal with cyberbullies and not lose self esteem.

Earlier this month, the charity released a report claiming that over half of children bullied in Europe have said they have become depressed as a result, with over a third saying they had self harmed or contemplated suicide.

Although such figures are likely to be called into question by academics, there is no denying that online bullying is becoming an increasingly disturbing topic.

The mother of a seventeen-year-old Dublin boy is currently pleading with Facebook to retrieve messages she believes will prove he took his life due to cyberbullying. Darren Hughes-Gibson, who was mixed race and wore a hearing aid, also received text messages from peers which the coroner described as having a ‘threatening undertone’.

The Irish government is taking the problem very seriously, and there are plans to introduce cyberbullying classes in every school. Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the country’s Rapporteur on Child Protection, has also advocated the introduction of cyberbullying law at EU level, saying:

“The law must keep pace with technology in protecting vulnerable young children and must exist as an accessible recourse for those who are victims of abuses such as cyber-bullying.”

Meanwhile the US is leading the charge, with anti cyberbullying bills passed in virtually every state.

As for the UK, although there are no specific laws related to cyberbullying, legislation such as the Malicious Communications Act (1988) and the Protection from Harassment Act (1997) does provide some protection for young people. Charities such as BeatBullying are also calling on the European Commission to introduce EU wide cyberbullying laws.

Over the last few years, cyberbullying has received unprecedented media coverage in the UK. At least six deaths in the UK and Ireland have been linked to Ask.fm, a social network where users post and answer questions anonymously. The website has over 120 million users, with 42% under the age of 17. A lack of visibility has made it a target for widespread criticism and it has since updated its safety features following an independent audit. Many have said it’s still not enough.

In an interview with TIME Magazine last week, Ask.fm co-founder Ilja Terebin said his company was itself being ‘bullied’ by the media, commenting: “This website, if you close it down, you will not have stopped bullying. It’s everywhere. It’s offline. It’s in schools.

“The bullying is by SMS, too, other social networks. And of course it happens on Ask.fm as well. But you can’t just close everything. Even if you close everything, you take down the Internet, you take down mobile phones—if the child is going to school, there still will be the problem of bullying.”

So what is the solution to this fundamentally modern issue? According to non-profit The Cybersmile Foundation, it is important to address the behaviour at the root of the problem: “By showing young people the damaging emotional effects of cyberbullying, we can challenge existing emotional detachment issues and begin to change our children's perception of online social interaction.”

“This community lacks the social rules of engagement that have been cultivated over generations, governing the behaviour and relationships in the communities where we live, play and work,” Cybersmile’s website warns. The online world, it seems, has a lot of catching up to do.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.