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Bullies in their bedrooms

Children's lives are defined by the internet, but whose job is it to keep them safe?

By Zoë Grünewald

Semina Halliwell was just 12 years old when she took her own life last summer.

The Merseyside schoolgirl had spent the months leading up to her death subject to a relentless campaign of bullying and harassment from her peers after she had reported to the police that another student had raped her. Though Semina had been subject to this behaviour both online and off, her mother, Rachel Halliwell, believes social media played a critical role: “If she hadn’t been online, [the] boy would not have been able to groom her.”

To this day, bullies incite abuse against Semina and the family online. “It [is] endless,” says Halliwell, who since her daughter’s death has become a vocal campaigner against online bullying. “For instance, [someone posted on] a Snapchat account ‘£10,000 for anybody to go to Semina’s grave, smash it up and video it’.” The grave was desecrated two weeks later.

Bullying and harassment in schools is epidemic. In June 2021, Ofsted published a damning review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, stating that “for some children, incidents are so commonplace that they see no point in reporting them”. Nearly 90 per cent of schoolgirls and 50 per cent of schoolboys reported some form of online sexual abuse and harassment. The Ofsted report noted that the problem was so severe, that even where schools may not have evidence that there is an online sexual abuse and harassment problem for their pupils, “leaders should take a whole school/college approach to developing a culture where all kinds of sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are recognised and addressed”.

In 2021, after sharing her own experiences on Instagram, Soma Sara started the Everyone’s Invited movement to expose rape culture in schools, highlighting the extent to which young, mainly female, pupils fall victim to sexual assault, abuse and harassment from other pupils. A significant number of the testimonies on the movement’s website involved online harassment, and many of the incidents illustrated where schools were complicit, either in the cover-up or in fostering an environment that encouraged these behaviours. Though the movement recognises online sexual harassment as a problem, the site states that the issues run much deeper, in “attitudes, behaviours and beliefs” that “have the effect of normalising and trivialising sexual violence”.

While it would be wrong to say social media is responsible for these behaviours, it is difficult to argue that it has not exacerbated the problem by giving bullies unfettered access to their victims. Halliwell says that as soon as Semina had access to social media, she was at risk of harassment, and unlike playground bullying, online bullying followed her home. “You close the door, [and previously] those bullies couldn’t get to you. Now, because of social media, they’re in their bedrooms.” Hannah Rüschen, policy and public affairs officer at children’s charity the NSPCC, is concerned that the online world is designed in a way that actively enables this behaviour, through “easy access to harmful content” and design features such as disappearing messages.

Halliwell also points to the role of anonymity in the treatment of Semina. As social media accounts can be created without proof of identity, the police found it difficult to trace the source of abuse, and this allowed for multiple unnamed and unregistered accounts to pop up to harass Semina. “You can open [a social media account] without any form of identity, create a fictitious IP address or use an unregistered mobile phone number, and put people through levels of torment and suffering that effectively are crimes,” says Halliwell.

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In May 2021, the government published the draft Online Safety Bill, which intends to clamp down on illegal content, as well as legal but harmful online content, such as misinformation and cyberbullying. However, the bill is not without its critics. As Spotlight reported last year, safety campaigners have criticised the definition of “bullying” as “wishy-washy”, making it easy for tech firms to avoid fines and leave citizens subject to confusing rules and little protection. In December, a parliamentary committee examining the bill published a report that called for firmer protections, making individual acts, such as sharing content with the intent of causing physical or severe psychological harm, punishable by law. The committee also called for more regulation, giving Ofcom the power to introduce fines and prison sentences for specific individuals within tech firms who would be designated liable for offences, to ensure the tech companies weren’t just self-policing.

Halliwell believes, however, that the failure to protect her daughter lies not just with tech companies. She says, for instance, that the school failed to separate Semina and her brother from the bullies, which led to the brother being assaulted on its grounds. Halliwell and her sister, Claire, also believe the police failed to appreciate the gravity of Semina’s experience. Claire believes the behaviour Semina faced should be subject to tighter laws. “If you get burgled you would have a dedicated team,” she notes. “This is an invasion of your person, not your property, and it’s not treated as seriously.”

When the online abuse was reported to the police the sisters were told nothing could be done. “They said ‘we can’t trace it’… and it carried on and on and on and on,” says Claire. In response, a spokesperson for the police said: “On 23 March 2021, Merseyside Police received a report that a 12-year-old girl had been raped in the Southport area on 25 February. We also received further reports of both online bullying and assault against the same alleged victim. Investigations into these allegations were launched. As part of these investigations, on 24 March, officers contacted the school attended by the alleged victim. Police liaised with the school’s safeguarding lead to discuss concerns and ensure that safety plans were put in place. Extensive enquiries remain ongoing in relation to this investigation, and it would therefore be inappropriate to comment further on the specifics of the case at this stage. We take reports of online bullying and harassment extremely seriously, conduct full investigations, and have a number of Safer Schools Officers who work within schools across our region to raise awareness of and educate young people on the impact of such crime.”

The NSPCC would prefer education to increased criminalisation, to prevent the actions that led to Semina’s death. Rüschen says it is a “very fine line to tread when thinking about where children sit within that broader legislative picture”, and rather than make children criminally culpable, the NSPCC would rather see tech companies taking responsibility for removing harmful content, and schools ensure that children are being properly taught “what it means to be a digital native online”. “We want to make sure that children have an understanding that if you share a self-generated sexual image, you might be sharing that consensually, but it’s very, very difficult to keep track of who has the image, who it’s being sent to, who has screenshot it and [have an] understanding about how some of those dynamics play out in the online space,” Rüschen explains.

The Department for Education has produced a variety of advice for school staff to deal with bullying and harassment, and children are now subject to relationship and sex education in schools. However, the news site Vice reported in November 2021 that despite the new curriculum becoming mandatory in September 2020, there were serious concerns that the majority of schools had not downloaded key parts of it, including modules covering topics such as online consent, pornography and intimate sexual relationships. It also reported that prior to the curriculum change, teachers had flagged serious concerns that their school would be unable to deliver the necessary education, in part due to their lack of confidence in their own ability to teach it.

Rüschen points to what she refers to as a “generational gap” between students and teachers, where teachers and policymakers might not be understanding and sympathetic “of what it’s actually like to be a child growing up in the era of social media”. She says that though the NSPCC is pleased with the mandatory relationship and sex education, there needs to be a more concerted effort to relate it to the online world, “not just specific classes on things like consent, but also linking that with [the children’s] digital education and what they know about the online space”.

The chair of the House of Commons education committee, Robert Halfon MP, agrees that schools have a major role to play in dealing with this issue: “There needs to be an overhaul in safeguarding, to reflect much more the sort of awful things going on for these kids.” He points to schools that had been given “good” and even “outstanding” ratings by Ofsted, despite obvious failures in safeguards for children in this respect. Halfon also says he wants to see more parental involvement in what children are seeing online: “I think there needs to be much better parental engagement – so that you would have a safeguarding induction for parents and engagement programmes.”

If Semina’s story teaches us anything, it is that online bullying and harassment of children by children needs to be taken seriously – not just by tech companies, which have a responsibility to protect individuals from harmful content, but also by parents, teachers and the police, who should all be leading the way in keeping children safe online.

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