Are children losing the power to communicate because they spend too much time online? Is literacy on the decline due to text language? Is cyberbullying the result of too much access to digital technology? Should the government have increased powers over digital communication? All of these questions have been asked in recent times with concerns about young people ranging from access to online porn to the role that the media assigned instant messaging in the recent August riots.What is undeniable is that today’s teenagers are the first real ‘cyber citizens’ in a way that no other generation before them has been. From nursery school they have been on the cyber highway and for many young people social networking is a very important part of their life, offering them the ability to talk, share photos, music and interests – all from their own home or school. Particularly for those young people living in rural areas or those with disabilities that restrict independent socialising, these sites offer unlimited communication 24/7.

In short, no matter how many scare stories about cyberbullying or grooming online that young people hear, I can’t see them giving it up lightly, no matter what the potential dangers are, nor should they be expected to. It is too simplistic to say to a young person, “Well, just don’t go on MSN; then they can’t reach you!” Instead I think we all need to learn to be responsible, respectful digital citizens, including children and young people. After all, it is not the technology that is to blame for spiteful, hurtful, aggressive or threatening behaviour, but the people using it.

And there are plenty of scare stories out there; cyberbullying is a form of bullying that is on the increase globally. The darker side of digital communication, a cyberbully uses texts, instant messaging, chatrooms, emails and websites to torment, threaten, harass, humiliate or embarrass someone else. Even celebrities are not immune from cyberbullying with newspaper stories reporting social networking sites, such as Twitter, being hacked and inappropriate messages being posted.

Although some adults do suffer from this form of bullying (including in the workplace) it seems to be more prevalent amongst younger people, and in my experience cyberbullying appeals more to young women. That is not to say that young men do not cyberbully; they do, but the secretive, sustained nature of cyberbullying seems to suit the ‘Mean Girls’ style bully. In 2009 Girl Guiding UK revealed that more than a quarter of girls in the UK have been a target of cyberbullying, including being targeted online, the bluetoothing of embarrassing or offensive pictures and being stalked by text – even stealing passwords and impersonating a victim online.

Young people I have worked with who have been a victim of cyberbullying describe feeling nervous, distracted and trapped, with no way out. Unlike other forms of bullying even home stops feeling like a safe place, as bullies can access their targets day and night. These feelings can lead to frustration and / or depression with many victims avoiding school or social settings where they may come across their tormentors. The media have reported cases where young people have been hounded to the point where they self harm or even in extreme cases take their own life. Equally, victims may not be sure who their bully is, leading to mistrust of everyone and aggressiveness on their part as they try to decipher who is their friend and who is a tormentor.

As with any other form of bullying, cyberbullies rely on their friends or ‘bystanders’ to reinforce their behaviour by joining in. Even young people less involved can perpetuate the bullying simply by not intervening or offering support when they know what is happening. It is easy to laugh at a picture circulated of someone else’s misfortunes without stopping to think how that person might feel, and by the time it has been distributed outside existing friendship groups any empathy has long gone. It becomes just another joke in cyberland. So it is easy to see how the lines between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour can blur and a cyberbully become very powerful very quickly.

To challenge this, all young people should be alerted to think hard before sending abusive text messages, forwarding offensive emails or adding nasty comments to a photo. A joke is only a joke if everyone, including the subject of it, is laughing. It is important that young people do not get swept into something that if they sat and thought about it they would avoid. After all, without supporters a bully is just a single unpleasant person – it is the others who join in that give power to a bully and help to keep it going.

Parents should also role model good cyber behaviour themselves, for example not getting into text arguments or joining in with their children’s online fights. Certainly young people have shown me text messages filled with abuse and swear words where parents have ‘told them off’, which almost gives permission for their children to use mobile phones to behave aggressively too.

Parents should be aware that their child is as likely to be a cyberbully as a target of cyberbullying and check out what they are doing online, thereby helping them to take responsibility for their actions, without demonising or spreading panic. Often even young children are left to play online in a room away from parental supervision for long periods of time, which makes it almost impossible for parents to see what sites they are accessing. Using basic online filters and blocking software can help, as can agreeing online protocols and setting clear boundaries that reinforce what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Youth workers and teachers can help young people develop good cyber manners too by making it clear that cyberbullying in any form is unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated. By creating a peer environment that sanctions against, rather than ignoring or condoning hurtful actions, clear messages are sent to both the victims and perpetrators of bullying behaviour. Cyberbullying should be within any organisational anti-bullying policy and clear sanctions publicised so that everyone knows the score. Involving young people in this process can be a really useful way of raising awareness as well as reinforcing any rules.

Make sure that all young people know what to do if it happens to them, and even more importantly create an environment where they will act upon it. If someone receives an unpleasant or aggressive email encourage them to print or save a copy as evidence and then find a trusted adult to tell. A common reaction to opening a horrid or upsetting message is to delete and forget it in the hope that it is a one-off. It may be, but it may be the first of many and if the police do need to become involved then it is important to be able to document exactly what has happened. Police and mobile phone and Internet providers can easily trace messages back to individual phones or computers, although proving who was using them is not so simple.

If an abusive or provoking message pops up online or by text, stress that it is vital not to get drawn into a ‘cyber fight’. Too often the temptation is to enter into a cyber argument and make a bad situation worse. This could even spill over into real life and get other young people involved, hyping the situation up even more. Instead, tell young people to keep the message but not to respond. If the emails are repeated then advise that they block the sender, and not to open messages from unknown senders. Also keep a diary to record what is happening, tell someone who can help and call the police, particularly if threats of violence are made.

If the nasty messages are being sent via a site such as Facebook, then the person receiving them should notify the site webmaster who will advise and in some cases close the bully’s account and ban them from opening another. It is important to remember that social networking sites make most of their revenue through advertising and they do not want to be associated with bullying, which reflects badly on the site, so they will take it very seriously.

Unlike other forms of bullying, cyberbullying makes it easier to bully across generations too. Professionals can help avoid becoming a victim of cyberbullying by keeping to strict professional boundaries, for example refusing friendship requests on Facebook and not letting young people to have their mobile numbers. However, it is out of their control if pupils post inappropriate pictures with their teacher’s heads superimposed, for example, or find a youth worker’s number and text obscene messages or target a social worker by setting up an online poll and inviting negative comments. This lack of any control, despite doing a professional best, can add to the very real distress experienced by victims. The advice is the same as that given to any child – record, report and get support as quickly as you can.

So is digital technology to blame for the pain and misery of many, and if so how can we stop it? Well, personally I am not sure that this is anything totally new. Twenty-five years ago bullying by mobile phone was not an issue, but prank and nuisance calls were certainly being made from phone boxes or home phones. Banning mobiles from schools, limiting technology and cutting down on online access may help a bit in the short term, but it is not really going to educate and change behaviour. By all means dispel fears and myths about the Internet, discuss appropriate behaviour and make sure that young people know how to keep themselves safe online, but let’s be careful not to demonise the wonder of the web and all of the technology that has contributed to a digital revolution.

Instead, I think that this is an issue that should be brought out into the open and discussed with children and young people from their first contact with a computer, through to all of the digital technology that I am sure will follow.

The resources in my book, Cyberbullying, Activities to Help Children and Teens to Stay Safe in a Texting, Twittering, Social Networking World, are a direct response to what I see as a growing need. It can be used effectively by teachers, social workers, and youth workers with groups of young people or adapted easily for one-to-one work. The book would also be very useful for parents and I specifically made sure that you do not have to be a technical expert or a computer specialist to be able to facilitate the activities successfully. Hopefully, they will encourage young people to build awareness and victim empathy, and ultimately encourage them to take responsibility for their online behaviour in the same way that they are in the ‘real’ world.

Vanessa Rogers is the author of Cyberbullying : Activities to Help Children and Teens to Stay Safe in a Texting, Twittering, Social Networking World.

Rogers, Vanessa (2010) Cyberbullying : Activities to Help Children and Teens to Stay Safe in a Texting, Twittering, Social Networking World

Jessica Kingsley, London

Paperback: £9.99 / $16.95

ISBN: 978-1-84905-105-7, BIC 2: VFXC JNHB JKSB

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