We need national debate on cyber-bullying scourge


Anti-Bullying Week 2013 has shone a spotlight on the endemic problems we face with cyber-bullying and keeping pupils safe online. Dr Hilary Emery says that if we don’t act, we face the issue becoming of epidemic proportions. She calls for a national debat

In 2007, the Anti-Bullying Alliance called the nation’s attention to the issue of cyber-bullying, which was, at the time, essentially a new phenomenon with little or no evidence-based research into the nature of the problem or how it was likely to grow.

Since then we have seen a dramatic rise in cyber-bullying and worryingly, between 2011 and 2012 some 28,085 children made contact with child helplines to report cases of cyber-bullying.

Technology has moved on immeasurably and continues to change almost daily, becoming more mobile, more personal, and more connected than ever before. 

The issue cannot be pushed aside, yet education, industry, parents and government are still struggling to decide with whom responsibility lies to keep our children safe online.

Robust evidence in this area is still woefully lacking, but what is clear is that children today are growing up “cyber-fluent”; this connectivity undoubtedly comes with countless benefits, but in order to enjoy those benefits, it is vital to ensure that children and young people are supported to be safe online from their earliest use, and are taught about staying safe online from an appropriate age as they become more independent users.

Without being alarmist, we need to help them to recognise the risks and responsibilities of online communications, how to manage difficult situations if they arise and who they can talk to if they have worries or concerns about what is happening.

Research conducted by the Anti-Bullying Alliance and legal experts Slater and Gordon in October 2013 revealed that a staggering 55.2 per cent of children and young people in England accept cyber-bullying as “part of everyday life”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly we found that parents and teachers, to whom young people often turn to for help, feel ill-equipped to deal with the problem. So while more than two out of three children (67 per cent) said they would turn to their parents if they were bullied online, more than a third of parents (40 per cent) said they did not know how to respond if their child was cyber-bullied.

The solution, in part, is better information, preparation and education, not just for children and young people, but better training for teachers and support for parents.

The Anti-Bullying Alliance poll showed that 43 per cent of teachers said their school did not currently teach anything about cyber-bullying and online safety, more than 30 per cent said they did not have adequate knowledge to match the online behaviours of their pupils, with 44 per cent saying they did not know how to respond to cyber-bullying. 

Most persuasively, almost a third (32.1 per cent) of young people said that educating schools, parents and young people would have the greatest impact towards combating the problem of cyber-bullying.

It is clear from these findings that we must mobilise and act now to combat this issue before it reaches epidemic proportions. 

Although the government has taken steps, such as introducing “e-safety” within the new curriculum for 2014, we feel that a lot more could be done. We propose there should be a cross-curricular approach, with a cross-disciplinary plan to tackle cyber-bullying.

For example, children and young people can learn about the technical facts and practical solutions in ICT/computing lessons, as well as addressing emotional and situational awareness and learning how to deal with cyber-bullying should it occur through PSHE, drama and English.

Last week saw national Anti-Bullying Week take place (November 18 to 22), with a strong focus on cyber-bullying through the theme The Future is Ours: Safe, fun and connected. 

The Anti-Bullying Alliance conducted a second piece of research with online safety experts McAfee. What was overwhelmingly clear from the findings was that children need help to better understand what is and is not appropriate behaviour online, with many of them unaware of what cyber-bullying actually is.

Less than one in four (23 per cent) young people who had directed a comment with cruel or abusive language to someone online considered it “mean” to the person it was directed at, and just nine per cent considered that behaviour to be cyber-bullying. 

In addition, 15 per cent said that if someone was upset by a mean comment they had been directed towards them online, they would think that they were “over-reacting”, with a quarter (24 per cent) saying they would be “shocked” to have their comments perceived as cruel.

This clearly shows that young people are grappling to understand online etiquettes and need the same clear guidelines and boundaries that they have in the “real-world”. 

Ultimately the internet is a life-skill which we, as adults and especially schools, need to teach all young people (for more on the other findings from the McAfee research, see further information, below).

Currently there is no clear leadership, no co-ordination and no adequate educational model in place to tackle the growing issue of cyber-bullying. 

The Anti-Bullying Alliance is calling for a national debate on children and young people’s use of the internet and their online safety in the 21st century, focusing specifically on cyber-bullying, which will bring together children, parents, industry, providers, non-governmental organisations, government, and educators.

We need to reduce levels of cyber-bullying, making it unacceptable, and see it become a thing of the past. 

We want to ensure a digital future for our children that is safe, fun and connected – where children take responsibility for their own safety online and their own behaviour, but more importantly know where to turn for help when things go wrong.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.

Further information
The Anti-Bullying Alliance: www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk
The McAfee Research
Research from online safety experts McAfee, released by the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA) to mark Anti-Bullying Week 2013, found that more than half of children go online without any parental supervision.
Furthermore, 81 per cent of parents are unintentionally exposing their children to inappropriate behaviour online and cyber-bullying because they have not got proper parental controls in place across all devices in the home.
As a result of the findings, McAfee and the ABA have published a report and a series of online videos offering information, advice and guidance to parents and children to help them stay safe online. 
The study spoke to more than 1,000 children aged from 10 to 17. It also found:
  • Sixteen per cent have been on the receiving end of “mean or cruel” behaviour online.
  • Twenty-two per cent have witnessed the same behaviours directed at a classmate or friend.
  • A quarter spend between four and six hours online every day.
  • More than half (53 per cent) go online in their own room away from their parents’ supervision.
  • Sixty-six per cent go online using their own SmartPhone.
  • One in five (19 per cent) of teenagers admit to lying to their parents about what they have been doing online.
The new report –Digital Deception: The online behaviour of teens – gives information on issues relating to cyber-bullying and offers support for parents and children. It is accompanied by a series of online videos and can be accessed online at www.anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk


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