Fighting this new form of bullying isn't just a technical problem, says Dr Denise Carter. We need to educate children to anticipate risks and become emotionally resilient
2007 saw an alarming rise in the reports of cyberbullying among children and young people both inside and outside of the school environment. The broadest definition of cyberbullying is that it is characterised by the use of new information and communication devices and services to bully, harass or intimidate an individual or group. As well as educating our children and young people to beware of the stranger in cyberspace, teachers now have a pivotal role in educating them to think about the dangers that they pose to each other online. That role has been formalised in a new clause in the SEF that measures the extent to which ‘learners adopt safe and responsible practices in using new technologies, including the internet’. The danger from paedophiles and other adults who might groom children on the internet remains a very real threat. However, cyberbullying is both insidious because it can be triggered by changes in friendship and peer-group alliances; and worrying in that it affects a larger number of children and young people than traditional bullying. For example, a recent survey of my own (spring 2007) of Year 9s (N=113) in a large north of England secondary school showed that while 15% (a worrying large figure in itself) had arranged to meet strangers from the internet, 41% had received abusive messages by phone or internet and 89% of these knew who had sent them. Gender differences in responses to these two questions were negligible. Although this survey dealt only with abusive messages sent by text or email, other research (eg Vandebosch et al, 2006) reveals that cyberbullying encompasses many other forms. These forms include content transmission; threats, abuse and harassment; hacking; and exclusion, and are mediated through a number of different channels including email, instant messaging, text messages, mobile phones and social networking websites. The breadth and depth of possible cyberbullying scenarios is worrying in itself, however, to further complicate the issues each of these channels is available 24 hours per day, dissolving the boundary between the domestic and the school sphere, and potentially allowing cyberbullies to intensify their harassment across a 24-hour period. We know from research that bullying puts the emotional wellbeing and educational achievement of pupils at risk and has a significant and lasting negative impact upon children’s lives. In addition it impacts on truancy, exclusions, participation in further or higher education and the incidence of self-harm and suicide. The invasion of domestic spaces by cyberbullying leading to the lack of a safe haven may increase the negative social, psychological and emotional consequences for victims (Tesco Mobile and NCH, 2005; Patchin and Hinduja, 2006; Strom and Strom, 2005).
Many teachers are concerned about their own technological abilities and the impact this might have on their capacity to play a role in educating and empowering children to use new information and communication devices and services safely. In general a high degree of technological skill is not necessary for preparing children and young people to be emotionally resilient in this area of their daily lives. However, this ‘lack of technological skill’ can be problematic where teachers, child service professionals and parents see technology as a ‘tool’ to be discontinued when problems arise. This is because children and young people’s perception of technology is very different to that of adults. Children often regard technology as ‘a way of life’ through which they learn to develop, negotiate and maintain their social networks on many different levels. As a result children and young people are very resistant to the technology itself being removed from them (Campbell, 2005; Cottle, 2001; Strom and Strom, 2005) and this is partly responsible for the low reporting levels of problems (only 17% in the earlier sample).
A new approach
One of the key messages to come out of my survey and discussions with children and young people was the lack of life experience to deal with these issues on an emotional, psychological and social level. With this in mind a new approach is needed to educate and empower children and young people. What kinds of help and advice do we need to make available to them? Older safety messages such as ‘never give out your personal details online’ are largely ineffective when dealing with peer groups and friends. This is because the basis of cyberbullying is the manipulation of personal information by peer groups and friends. For example: Case study 1: A boy of 17 who fell out with his girlfriend of 14 manipulated a pornographic image of a woman so that the head was of his girlfriend. He then posted this on a sex site with all the real contact details of his ex-girlfriend. The family were inundated with calls from men trying to buy sex with the girl. Case study 2: A young boy of 12 whose mother was seriously ill with cancer. A boy from his form group created a website saying he hoped that the boy’s mother would die. Case study 3: A 15-year-old girl discovered an entire website had been created to insult and threaten her by members of her year group. The site contained abuse concerning her weight and even had a date for her ‘death’. The lesson here is that we need to educate children and young people to anticipate, recognise and deal with risks and problems as and when they arise. Children and young people will continue to give out their personal details so they need to be taught more about the management of personal information, both their own and other people’s. More importantly they must be encouraged to become emotionally resilient in all areas of their daily lives. This is not an easy task, and of course we are dealing with these issues in an era when bullying is sometimes trivialised by the media. For example in the Big Brother Shilpa Sheti case, when programme makers denied a racial motive saying it was a simple case of bullying. Many schools and colleges (and home users) now employ some kind of technology to monitor, filter and block inappropriate content. Technological solutions that filter unwanted internet sites, while very useful, are not to be relied on alone since they can create a false sense of security. Recent calls by the prime minister for a kitemark system to help parents and teachers choose the right products is commendable, yet there are a number of strategies for accessing ‘banned’ websites that I am aware of (one passed on to me by a 10 year old!). As a parent I have discovered the most useful piece of equipment that I have is an internet time lock that means my teenage son can only access the internet when I allow it. Basically, any technological solutions need supporting by sound practical advice, for example:
Think twice before you give people you don’t know your personal information. You wouldn’t do this if you met someone in the street so why do it online?
Increasing concern around the issue of cyberbullying has led to the setting up of a cross government and industry taskforce to tackle the issue which is being led by the DCSF. Cyberbullying is part of a wider DCSF agenda. It impacts on all five outcomes of the Every Child Matters, DCSF and LA targets and the Respect agenda. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) is holding two national conferences on cyberbullying this autumn to launch the new cyberbullying guidance for schools which has been produced for the department by Childnet International www.childnet-int.org in close consultation with members of the DCSF Taskforce on Cyberbullying. This guidance will sit within the department’s overarching anti-bullying guidance, Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools and contains advice on the following topics: understanding cyberbullying, preventing cyberbullying, and responding to cyberbullying. For full information about the first conference, including how to register see http://livegroup.co.uk/childnet
The first version of the DCSF Bullying: Don’t Suffer in Silence guidance pack for schools was issued in December 2000, with an updated version in September 2002. The pack refers to many different types of bullying including homophobic bullying and mentions bullying by using mobile phone text messages.
BECTA also has a number of resources available covering online bullying including a list of useful websites offering information and advice.
Campbell, MA (2005) ‘Cyber Bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?’ Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling. 15(1): 68-76. Cottle, TJ (2001) Mind Fields: Adolescent Consciousness in a Culture of Distraction. New York, Peter Lang. Patchin, JW and S Hinduja (2006) ‘Bullies Move Beyond The Schoolyard: A Preliminary Look at Cyberbullying’. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice. 4(2): 148-169. Strom, PS and RD Strom (2005) ‘Cyberbullying by Adolescents: A Preliminary Assessment’. The Educational Forum. 70: 21-36. Tesco Mobile and NCH (2005) Putting U in the Picture – Mobile Bullying Survey 2005. UK: Tesco Mobile and NCH. Vandebosch, H, K Van Cleemput, et al (2006) Cyberbullying among Youngsters in Flanders. Brussels, University of Antwerp, viwTA, the Commission for Culture, Youth, Sport and the Media of the Flemish Parliament.
Dr Denise M Carter was until recently research fellow for the EU INSAFE project and is now lecturing in sociology at the University of Hull. Denise is also a member of the DCSF Cyberbullying Taskforce.
(The views expressed in this article are the author’s and should not be attributed to any of the organisations that Denise is associated with.)