Texts, smilies, threats and torment, the truth about cyber bullying

By Helena Eynon

International Women's Initiative News Writer

[Photo credit: Helena Eynon]

All I ever want for Mother’s Day is for my children to be happy, and I always hope that I will be able to help them quickly and effectively if things do go wrong. As a mother I had never really considered cyber bullying to be an issue before I suddenly had to deal with it, and I realised that I had absolutely no idea what to do. However, this concept now represents a new and significant threat to all of our children, whether they are at school, college, or beyond. As parents we all have to learn as we go along whenever new issues arise that affect our children and family lives. I hope that it never happens again, but at least I will be better prepared if it does.

Cyber bullying means any kind of abuse or bullying that happens online, through a computer, smartphone or tablet. This could include sending messages that are hurtful, unkind, untrue,  embarrassing or have sexual context to someone or about someone else via text message or social media. Although cyber bullying is a serious problem in the UK, it has never been clearly defined in English law.[1]

Cyber bullying is a particular issue amongst young girls,[2] with both the perpetrators and the victims more likely to be female. This could be because girls tend to bully one another differently to boys, employing more emotional and psychological tactics, whereas boys are generally more physical and aggressive. Girls are also different in the ways in which they interact with one another and tend to be less open than boys about engaging in bullying behaviour, which could in turn make them more inclined to do it whilst hiding behind a screen.[3] This makes it dangerously easy for them to become bullies, because they do not have to face their victim and can even do it anonymously by using a fake online profile.

One-in-five children and young people reported that they had been cyber-bullied, according to a recent survey of 5,000 children and young people carried out across 11 countries, including the UK. One-fifth of respondents said that it caused them to feel suicidal, and the majority felt that it was worse than being bullied face-to-face.[4] According to data from the UK organisation Bullying UK [5], cyber bullying is continuing to escalate, with an estimated 42% of young people saying that they have felt unsafe online.

Girls and young women are now spending more time than ever using mobile phones and tablets for social interaction, using text messages or social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram. Children as young as eight are now connecting with one another using video sharing software.[6] My ten-year-old daughter chats to her friends online using her tablet, via a variety of media. This is typical of her generation and they all seem to find it fantastic. However, as with all relationships, these interactions can become harmful and as a mother and a writer, I am increasingly interested in what happens when they do.

Cyber bullying is a relatively new concept, having evolved along with the technology that has made it possible. Any measures that are designed to protect users are often reactive, in the sense that they are not developed until the need is identified. For parents, caregivers and educators this means that we may not have considered any of this until it happens, and we suddenly have to deal with it. This is a very different concept to the face-to-face playground bullying that parents often relate to. It does not stop when a girl arrives home and closes the door behind her. It can happen 24-hours a day. Young victims can be caught up in a cycle of stress that can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, becoming withdrawn, and reluctance to attend school or college. Parents may not notice the signs immediately and when they do, it may not be easy to recognise the true cause. There have now been documented cases of girls having been driven to suicide by the actions of cyber-bullies.[7]

There is currently no clear definition of bullying under English law, so individual interpretations can vary by school or establishment. Bullying is generally considered to be behaviour that is repeated and targeted, and carried out with the intention of causing psychological or physical harm.

Certain common forms of bullying [8] are defined as illegal acts in English Law, such as violence, assault and battery, theft, harassment and intimidation. Furthermore, all state schools in England and Wales are required to have in place a policy of behaviour that covers the prevention of bullying [9], according to the School Standards and Framework Act (1998). The Education Act (2002) provides that all staff have a duty to prevent discrimination, harassment and victimisation within the school.

In the absence of a consolidating statute there are existing provisions that can and should be applied in relevant cases of cyber bullying. According to the Communications Act (2003), it is an offence to send “…by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. The Protection from Harassment Act (1997) can be applied in relevant cases of harassment, with a maximum prison sentence of five years in certain circumstances.[10] A serious limitation of the existing provisions, however, is that they are not being consistently enforced.[11]

“Free speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.” Amnesty International.[12]

Any change to clarify the law would primarily require a definition of what constitutes the offence of cyber bullying. Critics argue that this could infringe upon freedom of speech, because certain comments would suddenly become criminal offences.[13] All of our daughters have the right to freedom of speech,[14] although this can never equate to the right to bully others, and as ever, the right is balanced by the responsibility not to cause harm, which can be difficult for children to understand.

Equally, although censorship cannot be the answer, this argument can never be used to justify the failure to act to protect victims when cases do arise. Assuming that a young perpetrator is aged 10 years or over – the age of criminal responsibility in English law – could a new law leave many children and young people suddenly liable to prosecution? Communications between people of all ages naturally include dissent, criticism and argument, which can be taken too far and become hurtful and upsetting, and these interactions are becoming increasingly digital. Do we really need a law that renders such comments illegal? And if not, what should we do instead?

We all want to teach our children how to protect their rights and freedoms, as well as to make them aware of their responsibilities towards others. As adults we have a duty to protect our children as much as possible from becoming the victims – but also the perpetrators – of cyber bullying. This is not as simple as it sounds, because they are often more adept at using new technology than we are. However, we can continue to educate them on their own individual responsibilities in using their devices to interact with others, and open conversations about these issues are essential. It is not completely down to parenting though, because the ways in which we interact with one another will always be evolving at the pace of the technology itself. Therefore, schools and colleges also have a part to play by embracing this issue and letting it be known where support can quickly be found when needed.

I do not agree with censorship, but with my daughter’s knowledge I will continue to check her devices from time to time. I did some silly things as a teenager because I thought that I could get away with them or because I thought the rules would not apply. Now that I am the parent, I want to make sure that they do.

What to do if your child is a victim of cyber bullying

  • First of all, it is important that the child understands that what has been done to them is wrong and could be illegal
  • Consider a ban on mobiles and tablets in the bedroom at night, so that messages can only be sent or received during waking hours
  • Collect the evidence by taking screen shots of each incidence of cyber bullying
  • Immediately block the bully as a contact on your child’s devices
  • Meet with your child’s headteacher, present the evidence to them and ask them to explain the action that they propose to take
  • Contact the police if your child is being threatened, or has received sexually inappropriate messages from another party.

What to do if your child is cyber bullying

  • If you have suspicions about how your child is behaving online, the first step is to check their devices to see exactly what they have been doing
  • If your child is cyber bullying, immediately take away their devices. If they need to use them for study, ensure they are supervised at all times
  • Conventional punishments such as grounding and loss of privileges can still be applied, but it is also extremely important to ensure that your child understands why what they did was wrong, and what the consequences can be
  • Your child may not have been acting alone and they may even have been victimised themselves. If this has been happening within a school setting then your child’s teacher may well already be aware of the situation, and they will be as keen as you are to see it resolved, so ask them for support along the way.  

References:

  • [1] http://www.bullying.co.uk/cyberbullying/what-is-cyberbullying/
  • [2] http://www.bullyingstatistics.org/content/text-bullying.html
  • [3] https://nobullying.com/is-cyber-bullying-more-common-with-girls/
  • [4] http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/34328417/cyberbullying-worse-than-face-to-face-abuse-suggests-global-research
  • [5] http://www.bullying.co.uk/cyberbullying/what-is-cyberbullying/
  • [6] For example Musical.y https://musical.ly/
  • [7] http://www.bbc.co.uk/newsbeat/article/34328417/cyberbullying-worse-than-face-to-face-abuse-suggests-global-research
  • [8] https://www.gov.uk/bullying-at-school/the-law
  • [9] https://www.gov.uk/bullying-at-school/the-law
  • [10] https://www.cybersmile.org/blog/cyber-bullying-is-the-law-really-so-inept
  • [11] https://www.cybersmile.org/blog/cyber-bullying-is-the-law-really-so-inept
  • [12]  https://www.amnesty.org.uk/free-speech-freedom-expression-human-right
  • [13] http://www.bl.uk/my-digital-rights/articles/the-right-to-bully-others-online#
  • [14] https://www.amnesty.org.uk/free-speech-freedom-expression-human-right