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

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.

 

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

ILONA WELLMANN/MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How the internet has democratised pornography

With people now free to circumvent the big studios, different bodies, tastes and even pubic hair styles are being represented online.

Our opinions and tastes are influenced by the media we consume: that much is obvious. But although it’s easy to have that conversation if the medium we are discussing is “safe for work”, pornography carries so much stigma that we only engage with it on simple terms. Porn is either “good” or “bad”: a magical tool for ­empowerment or a destructive influence on society. Many “pro-porn” campaigners shy away from nuanced critique, fearing it could lead to censorship. “Anti-porn” campaigners, convinced that porn is harmful by definition, need look no further than the mainstream tube sites – essentially, aggregators of clips from elsewhere – to gather examples that will back them up.

When we talk about the influence of porn, the emphasis is usually on a particular type of video – hardcore sex scenes featuring mostly slim, pubic-hairless women and faceless men: porn made for men about women. This kind of porn is credited with everything from the pornification of pop music to changing what we actually do in bed. Last year the UK government released a policy note that suggested porn was responsible for a rise in the number of young people trying anal sex. Although the original researcher, Cicely Marston, pointed out that there was no clear link between the two, the note prompted a broad debate about the impact of porn. But in doing so, we have already lost – by accepting a definition of “porn” shaped less by our desires than by the dominant players in the industry.

On the day you read this, one single site, PornHub, will get somewhere between four and five million visits from within the UK. Millions more will visit YouPorn, Tube8, Redtube or similar sites. It’s clear that they’re influential. Perhaps less clear is that they are not unbiased aggregators: they don’t just reflect our tastes, they shape what we think and how we live. We can see this even in simple editorial decisions such as categorisation: PornHub offers 14 categories by default, including anal, threesome and milf (“mum I’d like to f***”), and then “For Women” as a separate category. So standard is it for mainstream sites to assume their audience is straight and male that “point of view” porn has become synonymous with “top-down view of a man getting a blow job”. Tropes that have entered everyday life – such as shaved pubic hair – abound here.

Alongside categories and tags, tube sites also decide what you see at the top of their results and on the home page. Hence the videos you see at the top tend towards escalation to get clicks: biggest gang bang ever. Dirtiest slut. Horniest milf. To find porn that doesn’t fit this mould you must go out of your way to search for it. Few people do, of course, so the clickbait gets promoted more frequently, and this in turn shapes what we click on next time. Is it any wonder we’ve ended up with such a narrow definition of porn? In reality, the front page of PornHub reflects our desires about as accurately as the Daily Mail “sidebar of shame” reflects Kim Kardashian.

Perhaps what we need is more competition? All the sites I have mentioned are owned by the same company – MindGeek. Besides porn tube sites, MindGeek has a stake in other adult websites and production companies: Brazzers, Digital Playground, Twistys, PornMD and many more. Even tube sites not owned by MindGeek, such as Xhamster, usually follow the same model: lots of free content, plus algorithms that chase page views aggressively, so tending towards hardcore clickbait.

Because porn is increasingly defined by these sites, steps taken to tackle its spread often end up doing the opposite of what was intended. For instance, the British government’s Digital Economy Bill aims to reduce the influence of porn on young people by forcing porn sites to age-verify users, but will in fact hand more power to large companies. The big players have the resources to implement age verification easily, and even to use legislation as a way to expand further into the market. MindGeek is already developing age-verification software that can be licensed to other websites; so it’s likely that, when the bill’s rules come in, small porn producers will either go out of business or be compelled to license software from the big players.

There are glimmers of hope for the ethical porn consumer. Tube sites may dominate search results, but the internet has also helped revolutionise porn production. Aspiring producers and performers no longer need a contract with a studio – all that’s required is a camera and a platform to distribute their work. That platform might be their own website, a dedicated cam site, or even something as simple as Snapchat.

This democratisation of porn has had positive effects. There’s more diversity of body shape, sexual taste and even pubic hair style on a cam site than on the home page of PornHub. Pleasure takes a more central role, too: one of the most popular “games” on the webcam site Chaturbate is for performers to hook up sex toys to the website, with users paying to try to give them an orgasm. Crucially, without a studio, performers can set their own boundaries.

Kelly Pierce, a performer who now works mostly on cam, told me that one of the main benefits of working independently is a sense of security. “As long as you put time in you know you are going to make money doing it,” she said. “You don’t spend your time searching for shoots, but actually working towards monetary gain.” She also has more freedom in her work: “You have nobody to answer to but yourself, and obviously your fans. Sometimes politics comes into play when you work for others than yourself.”

Cam sites are also big business, and the next logical step in the trickle-down of power is for performers to have their own distribution platforms. Unfortunately, no matter how well-meaning your indie porn project, the “Adult” label makes it most likely you’ll fail. Mainstream payment providers won’t work with adult businesses, and specialist providers take a huge cut of revenue. Major ad networks avoid porn, so the only advertising option is to sign up to an “adult” network, which is probably owned by a large porn company and will fill your site with bouncing-boob gifs and hot milfs “in your area”: exactly the kind of thing you’re trying to fight against. Those who are trying to take on the might of Big Porn need not just to change what we watch, but challenge what we think porn is, too.

The internet has given the porn industry a huge boost – cheaper production and distribution, the potential for more variety, and an influence that it would be ridiculous to ignore. But in our failure properly to analyse the industry, we are accepting a definition of porn that has been handed to us by the dominant players in the market.

Girl on the Net writes one of the UK’s most popular sex blogs: girlonthenet.com

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times