It is time to create a fire-wall against online bullying, and safeguard our cyber-futures. Twitter, Facebook, BB messenger, Instagram, YouTube, Flickr – these seemingly innocuous new words and phrases can be a veritable semantic and technological jungle to many adults, but ask any young person and this new language of social media can mean the world, literally.
New technologies put instant, global communications at our finger-tips, making it easier than ever for young people to share, communicate and be in constant contact, 24-hours-a-day.
But in the cautionary words of Voltaire, “with great power comes great responsibility” and these incredible leaps towards a previously unimaginable, technological world are becoming blighted by a new virus: cyber-bullying.
A wealth of evidence suggests this bullying trend is on the rise and becoming ingrained within internet culture. In May, Child Helpline International (CHI) published a briefing paper, Bullying: An Analysis of 10 Years of Data. It revealed that in the past 10 years, 126 million children have contacted a child helpline. Among the breakdown of figures lurked some critical issues for teachers and school leaders.
The first is that 80 per cent of all bullying takes place in schools, somewhere we perceive – both as parents and teachers – to be a safe, nurturing environment in which our children can learn and grow. The second is the emergence and growth of cyber-bullying. Between 2011 and 2012, a staggering 28,085 children made contact with child helplines to report cases of cyber-bullying. And this statistic will not tell the whole story – for every child that seeks help through a child line, there are many others who do not have the ability, access or confidence to do so.
This growing bullying probably won’t come as a surprise to many of you, given the amount of time young people spend online; it has become an indispensable part of their daily lives. Secondary school-aged children are the most prolific online communicators, with 96 per cent of young people aged 11 to 19 using some form of online communication tool according to the UK Safer Internet Centre. This accessibility is proving to be a double-edged sword – it opens up a world of possibilities but can also accommodate the creation of an environment where bullying becomes inescapable for the victim and easier for the perpetrators.
Technology has changed the face of bullying forever. But this certainly shouldn’t discourage young people from using the internet. Indeed, in a survey undertaken by Safer Internet Day 2013, 63 per cent of secondary-aged students listed “the right to feel safe, and the responsibility to support others online” in their top five rights.
A report released by Ofcom (2008) observed that children are often ill-equipped to deal with cyber-bullying or to deal with the emotional fall-out of hostile interactions online. We need parents and schools to provide guidance to young people on how to understand and use new technologies to promote positive communication and to recognise and manage the risks. We need to help them understand how something intended as “harmless fun” can get out of control.
School-supported, internally recognised events such as Safer Internet Day and Anti-Bullying Week go a long way towards encouraging such activity to take place. The theme for Anti-Bullying Week 2013 (November 18 to 22) is “The future is ours: safe, fun and connected”. It calls on young people to take the lead on creating a future without bullying – to stand together in cyber-space and send the message loud and clear: bullying, in any form, is not acceptable. This is a crucial issue for school councils and youth-led anti-bullying forums to be working on with students, teachers and school leaders.
Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk