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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.