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.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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