New technology can be a comfort or a threat. Vicky Lapins outlines legal duties on educators to keep children safe

Schools and bullies and have a long and intertwined, if unfortunate, history. Society may have become more violent and aggressive over the decades — but at the same time it is ever less tolerant of such behaviour and its consequences. The myth that bullying is ‘character-forming’, ‘part of life’ and ‘a rite of passage’ are no longer acceptable.

An intensified media spotlight on bullying, plus a growing tendency for those on the receiving end to resort to the courts, is seeing schools increasingly held accountable in law for their actions and omissions in this area. But new technology brings new ways to bully, muddying the waters.

For schools to deal with the growing legal challenge, they need a precise definition of what constitutes bullying. This is so that they can clearly understand when their legal duty of care comes into effect.

Legal definitions

A series of cases in the courts has over time clarified the parameters of what constitutes bullying in a legal sense:

  • A case in 2001 brought against Isle of Wight Council provided an objective assessment of bullying, which gave rise to the DfES advisory pack ‘Don’t Suffer in Silence’.
  • A further action against Enfield Council a year later established that behaviour needed to be ‘deliberately targeted and persistent’ in order to constitute bullying.

Finally, a school’s duty toward bullied pupils was recognised in a case against West Sussex County Council, also in 2002, which established that a school can owe a duty of care towards a child being outside the school gates.

Policies and strategies

Under the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, state-maintained schools have specific duties to combat bullying, and must have anti-bullying procedures in place. Independent schools have similar obligations under the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003.

  • All children and teachers are asked to sign up to the Government’s Anti-Bullying Charter for Action.
  • Meanwhile, other government initiatives such as ‘Making the Difference’ and ‘Don’t’ Suffer in Silence’ work alongside organisations such as Kidscape, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Bully Free Zone and Ofsted to produce strategies aimed at reducing bullying, supporting victims and dealing those children who bully.
  • The profile of bullying as a problem is further highlighted every year through anti-bullying week.

New ways to bully

The last couple of years has seen the rapid rise of a new type of bullying, one that harnesses the modern technologies all teenagers use
— mobile phones, email and web-based chatrooms.

Collectively known as ‘cyberbullying’, this type of aggression is defined by Childnet International as the ‘sending or posting of harmful or cruel text or images using the internet or other digital communication devices’.

This is reflected in the DfES definition of cyberbullying as ‘an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself’.

The bully’s armoury

Police experts and children’s charities are concerned at the increase of cyber-bullying. Bullying claims the lives of about 20 teenagers a year whilst thousands more suffer physical and psychological torment. Charities are voicing concern that this new phenomenon is ‘growing like wildfire’.

In 2001, mobile phones were among the most popular Christmas present for children, and over the next two years, cyber-bullying rose by 30 per cent, according to children’s charity Kidscape.

At the same time we have seen an explosion of social networking websites such as Bebo and MySpace where teenagers meet and chat virtually. In recent years both these websites have built up a huge following. MySpace for example claims to have more than 80 million users.

As a result, taking a picture or video clip of a fellow pupil, and sending this to others to make him or her feel threatened or embarrassed, or much worse, filming and sharing physical attacks (a practice known as ‘happy slapping’), are now part of the bully’s armoury.

What is cyberbullying?

The Anti-Bullying Association has identified seven types of cyberbullying, ranging from abusive text messages, emails and phone calls, to bullying in internet chatrooms, social networking sites and instant messaging:

1. Text messages — unwelcome texts that are threatening or cause discomfort.
2. Picture/video-clips via mobile phone cameras — images sent to others to make the victim feel threatened or embarrassed
3. Mobile phone calls — silent calls or abusive messages; or stealing the victim’s phone and using it to harass others, to make them believe the victim is responsible
4. Emails — threatening or bullying emails, often sent using a pseudonym or somebody else’s name
5. Chatroom bullying — menacing or upsetting responses to children or young people when they are in web-based chatroom
6. Instant messaging (IM) — unpleasant messages sent while children conduct real-time conversations online
7. Bullying via websites — use of defamatory blogs (web logs), personal websites and online personal polling sites

The gender dimension

The advent of cyber-bullying adds a new and worrying gender dimension to the wider problem of bullying. Ten years ago, psychologists thought of aggression in verbal and physical terms, traditionally seen as a male domain. But cyber-bullying is more akin to relational or indirect bullying, such as rumour-spreading, where female pupils are more likely to be involved.

The old saying used to be ‘sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me’. Unfortunately, words are extremely powerful and have brought some children and adolescents to commit suicide, after being ridiculed, made fun of and mentally tortured.

Outside school

Unlike other forms, cyber-bullying can follow children and young people into their private space and outside school hours. It allows the user to bully anonymously or from an unknown location, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Cyber-bullies can also communicate messages to a wider audience with remarkable speed, often remaining unseen and unidentified. There has also been a significant increase in social networking sites for young people, which can provide new opportunities for bullies.

Schools need to recognise that cyber-bullying is a specific type of bullying that needs tackling along with the more traditional type of bullying in the playground.

A growing problem

Cyber-bullying has rapidly become a vast and growing problem. A four-year study of more than 11,000 children published in 2006 found that:

  • nearly 15 per cent of those surveyed had received nasty or aggressive messages
  • more than 10 per cent of UK teenagers said they had been bullied online
  • 24 per cent knew of a victim of online bullying
  • 44 per cent of respondents knew or had been threatened via email or instant messaging services
  • around 33 per cent knew of instances where bullies hacked into email accounts and sent embarrassing material from them
  • 62 per cent had heard rumours or malicious gossip spread online

It is therefore essential that both parents and young people themselves should understand how to use such technologies safely to protect themselves at home and outside school hours, as well as supporting their schools in dealing with such incidents.

Criminal law

Making repeated offensive remarks on websites can be a criminal offence. Perpetrators may also be breaking the Harassment Act 1997 or the Telecommunications Act 1984.

However, there have yet been no prosecutions for incidents of this sort. Local charities have expressed the view that a few ‘high profile’ court cases could well act as a deterrent.

Finding a solution

A school is under the same obligations to tackle cyber-bullying as with any other, but must recognise the particular difficulties involved.

Guidelines exist for safe management of websites, email or chatrooms. The industry has taken on cyber-bullies, with helplines (including Chat Danger, Stop the Bully, Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation, Kindsmart and Cyber-bully) warning about the dangers of interactive online services and offering advice for schools, parents and children.

The DfES is to consult with internet providers and mobile phone operators to explore further action.

The Government’s own recently published guidelines are a useful step in helping schools to tackle the issue of cyber-bullying. The guidelines in ‘Tackling Cyber-bullying’ set out simple steps that the schools, parents and pupils can take to prevent cyber-bullying and deal with incidents when they occur.

From a school’s perspective, the guidelines recommend that its mandatory anti-bullying policies include strategies to deal with electronic forms of bullying, as well as clear rules on the possession and use of mobile phones in school.

All e-communications used on the school site or as part of school activities off-site should be monitored and restricted if necessary, and students are to be told not to respond to abusive emails, text messages or phone calls. Members of staff have a duty to make sure that they are familiar with their role in dealing with cyber-bullying.

Staff responsibilities
These include:

  • teaching children safe internet etiquette
  • applying school policy in monitoring electronic messages and images
  • keeping up a dialogue with parents about emerging technologies their child might be using
  • ensuring parents know what steps to take if they suspect their child is being cyber-bullied or is bullying someone else

Advice for parents and pupils
The guidance recommends that parents make sure they and their children understand how to use technology safely and be aware of the risks and consequences of misuse. For example, they are advised to use parental control software, and their children to use moderated chatrooms. Parents are encouraged to contact the school if their child experiences problems with cyber-bullying.

Young people are advised not to respond to abusive emails, text messages or phone calls, but to tell an adult (preferably a parent or teacher) and to contact their service provider for advice on how to block calls. They should keep emails and texts as evidence for tracing and possible police action.

The guidance recommends that young people keep to public areas of chat rooms and never give out contact details online or post photographs of themselves.

Education bill

The suggestions for tackling cyber-bullying above may be only guidelines, but they have been given added strength by the Education and Inspections Bill. This gives teachers a legal right to discipline pupils, and strengthens their authority to take firm action on bullying.

This new legislation will also send a strong message to parents and pupils that bullying will not be tolerated, with court-imposed parenting orders to compel parents of bullies to attend parenting classes or face fines of up to £1,000.

A comfort and a threat

The phenomenon of cyber-bullying can give technologies such as the internet, mobile phones or email accounts a dangerous and frightening aspect — but technology itself is, of course, a morally neutral medium. It is important to remember that it can be a channel for comfort as well as threat.

As technology has become more sophisticated, so has the way children are bullied. However the internet can also be a sanctuary for the victims of bullying by masking their differences and allowing them to be part of communities beyond their locality.

Hence the importance of measures to protect young people from those who use technology for oppressive purposes. In the words of schools minister, Jim Knight, schools must ‘tackle bullying in cyber-space with the same vigilance as in the playground’.

Find out more

  • Government guidance including Don’t Suffer in Silence, and Tackling Cyber-bullying
  • The DfES website gives comprehensive information on tackling bullying, including links to relevant legislation
  • The world’s first website dedicated to cyber-bullying with advice on combating cyber-bullying, including how to take screenshots of online bullying for evidence
  • Anti-Bullying Alliance
  • Free helplines: 0808 800 2222 (parents); ChildLine: 0808 800 1111

Vicky Lapins is a paralegal at Browne Jacobson solicitors

We are unable to publish reader comments about individual child protection concerns on this website. If you are worried about a child please call the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 for help and advice. Alternatively you can contact your Local Safeguarding Children Board (LSCB) through your local council.