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.