Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter of the Vagenda Magazine

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How can we end cyberbullying?

Let's start by ditching the word "cyber bullying" - this isn't a new phenomenon, but it is harder for parents and teachers to deal with than harassment and abuse than occurs offline.

Living a life online: kids glued to their smartphones. Photo: Getty
Living a life online: kids glued to their smartphones. Photo: Getty

Kyle Darker was 12 when he was found hanged at his home in Eccles, Greater Manchester. The coverage of his death is a gutpunch; it makes for almost impossible reading. On a Facebook memorial page, a girl who appeared to be his friend wrote: “Hate bullies so much. RIP Kyle, sleep tight little man, had your whole life ahead of you.”

Media reports are quick to link the deaths of young people to bullying. After Thomas Mullaney, 15, died in 2010 following threats online, his father Robert said "Kids don't understand what they do on Facebook has consequences. In our case I lost my son." In the US, meanwhile, there was an anti-bullying campaign in which supporters of Michael Morones, 11, who was hospitalised last month after a suicide attempt, get My Little Pony tattoos. Michael was bullied at school because he liked the cartoon.

This week, there are pictures of Tallulah Wilson in the newspapers again. You might remember her face from January, when her inquest drew much media attention, The north London schoolgirl took her own life when she was just 15. She was suffering from clinical depression and reports said that she had been bullied at school. Her mother, Sarah Wilson, argued that social media had a part to play, as Tallulah had become immersed in what she referred to as the “toxic digital world” of self-harming and suicide-promoting websites. She had reportedly written the words “I am fat” in her diary over and over, while internet posts included “I will never be beautiful and skinny”. The bitter irony was that, as the coroner pointed out, Tallulah was an intelligent, “lovely-looking” girl who had been scouted for the Royal Ballet. She had also created an internet persona which had amassed 18,000 followers on a Tumblr blog that also showed images of her self-harming. Following the inquest her mother called for greater regulation of such websites, saying she was shocked by how easy it was to access them.  “I believe the likes of Tumblr should do more to protect other vulnerable young people from the insidious aspects of the internet,” she told reporters.

There is a fine line to tread when it comes to the reporting of suicide, and the media is urged to be sensitive, in case it leads to potential copycat incidents. Young people are especially vulnerable to over-identification with victims who receive high levels of media attention. According to the Samaritans, 90 per cent of those who commit suicide have a diagnosed or undiagnosed mental health problem, so blaming bullying in any one case, especially cyberbullying, as the media often does, ignores the complexity of the issue. It was announced this week that psychiatrists could get more training on how to protect vulnerable teenagers from self-harm and suicide, which is good news. Bristol University will also be researching “the use of the internet in relation to suicidal behaviour”. Both are important steps, as is Tumblr’s “everything ok?” message, which pops up and provides helplines to users who have searched for suicide-linked topics. The website also seems to be doing better when it comes to removing explicit, self-harming content, although the same cannot be said for other sites which are popular with teenagers. And what if it’s your fellow pupils or your Facebook friends who are telling you to harm yourself?

It’s tempting to focus on the internet when it comes to cases of bullying, and to forget that many victims are bullied offline, as well as on. Indeed, social isolation is one of the many reasons why a child or teenager might choose to visit such websites – Tallulah Wilson had reportedly lost faith in making real-life friends when she took to posting about self-harming. Furthermore, no one seems to have quite agreed upon who exactly should be responsible for policing bullying behaviour, which will often take place within school but then follow the child home via social media.

At present, (state) schools must, by law, have a policy in place to “prevent all forms of bullying between pupils”, but whether this includes online bullying is something of a grey area. Head teachers also have the legal power to make sure that pupils behave themselves outside school premises - for example, on the way home or on public transport. Again, this does not seem to apply to social media, but as teachers point out, it is the parents who purchase the devices, who fail to monitor them correctly, and who often allow their children to join social networks such as Facebook while under the age of 13. They often have no idea what their child has been posting online, or what kinds of websites they are visiting, and will be shocked when they are told.

It’s important that parents talk to their children about their internet use, as well as discussing cases which have come up in the media. The internet, especially to a teenager, can feel like its own little bubble, but abuse online can take just as much of a toll as abuse that happens elsewhere. Adults in many ways inhabit a separate online sphere and, whether a teacher or a parent, will often be way behind as far as internet savviness is concerned. There’s also perhaps the worry that, because it is happening on Facebook or Twitter, that it doesn’t really “count”. The message needs to be sent out that bullying is bullying, whatever its methods.

Even in cases when adults are made aware of abuse and take steps such as closing online accounts or changing children’s phone numbers, bullying can continue. Part of the problem is how easy it is to create anonymous accounts, so that, as many victims of trolling have found, the taunts will just keep on coming. Better “report” functions are needed, as are guidelines on the importance of privacy settings - such as allowing only trusted friends to see posts. Children and young people should also be taught how to look out for one another – the victim of an orchestrated bullying campaign might not want to tell anyone, but their friend might.

In the UK, we have been told that curriculum changes will include lessons for pupils in staying safe online. That change is urgently needed, not just because of cyber bullying and suicide and self-harming websites but also due to internet porn, particularly revenge porn, and the pressure that girls are under to send naked selfies to boys (which, in some cases, have been used for blackmail purposes). It’s clear that nationally there’s just not enough is being done to make sure that children are aware of the risks of putting your life online. Good schools will have social media policies in place, and many do, but this is 2014 – all schools need to step up and recognise that bullying doesn’t always stop when a pupil reaches his or her doorstep. Parents we have spoken to have said that they have in the past found getting the police involved was more helpful than telling the school, and some said that police officers will happily speak to pupils about online harassment if asked. It’s about knowing when abusive behaviour strays into criminal activity.

Perhaps it’s time that we ditch the phrase “cyberbullying” and just call such behaviour what it is – abuse, harassment, or just plain old bullying. It remains widespread, and current efforts to tackle it are too disjointed and vary too much from place to place to be effective. In short, everybody (children, parents, teachers, police, legislators, politicians) needs more information. It’s time for a national campaign. If #nomakeupselfie can do it, then this cause can.

For advice about the issues raised in this post, you can read more on the Samaritans website or call now on 0845 790 9090.