Cyberbullying: A cautionary tale

Charley Rogers investigates the growing issue of cyberbullying, and how the education sector can teach young people about digital culpability and online respect

‘It is past time to act.’ This simple sentence is the culmination of an impassioned call to action from Labour and Co-operative MP for Manchester Central, Lucy Powell, in an article for The Guardian this September.

Powell is referring to the responsibility of the Government to regulate hate speech and fake news on social media sites. The op-ed, titled ‘Why I am seeking to stamp out online echo chambers of hate’, largely focuses on secret groups that have formed on sites such as Facebook, and spout radicalising and alt-right hate speech. The issues addressed in the article, however, are not too far from the concerns many parents and teachers harbour about the effects of social media on children and young people.

A back-to-school campaign launched by London-based non-profit Internet Matters this year, revealed that 73% of Year 7 parents felt anxious about their child’s ability to manage online relationships, and that 71% reported being worried that their children will be pushed into sharing images or videos online.

The fact that 72% of children now own a smartphone in their first year of secondary school confirms the widespread nature of these worries, and cyberbullying is at the top of the list, with 80% of Year 7 parents concerned about it, the survey found.

Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby Simon Bignell commented on the rise of bullying through online channels: “Because of the rise in digital connectivity, millions of children are bullied online each year and the threat, which may have existed just in the playground, now extends to the screen in front of them.” The pervasive nature of cyberbullying, then, is one of the reasons that children can feel as though they can’t escape it. Will Gardner, CEO of non-profit Childnet, said of the issue: “Technology allows for constant communication, meaning that it can be difficult to escape bullying, with it intruding into spaces that usually are regarded as safe and private, such as the home.”

But despite the knowledge that cyberbullying is reaching what could reasonably be described as an epidemic among young people, much of what is provided in terms of care still focuses on what the victim themselves can do to deal with instances of bullying, rather than on stopping the bully before their behaviour becomes an issue.

This step of supporting the victim is, of course, essential, and many schools have specific cyberbullying-related initiatives in place to encourage children affected by online bullying to seek help. One such institution is Edge Grove School in Watford. Speaking to Edge Grove’s Head of Technology, Ian Kay, I learned how they are approaching the topic: “Edge Grove has embedded e-safety in its safeguarding,” said Ian. “Children use technology in many lessons and staff have been trained to talk to children about the issues they may face online.”

Oftentimes, however, even the first step of identifying which children need help can be incredibly difficult for teachers, not only because of their heavy workload, but also due to the fact that many children who are being bullied are too afraid to speak up. International anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label’s bullying report for 2018 found that 65% of those who were bullied spoke up, whereas 35% said nothing. Two of the most common reasons to not speak up were fear of ‘being called a snitch’ (42%) and being ‘scared of it getting worse’ (39%). Sadly, 34% of respondents also said that they didn’t report incidents of bullying in which they were involved due to the belief that ‘it won’t be taken seriously’.

But what about teaching children not to be bullies in the first place? As Simon Bignell said, “It’s as much a part of stopping the online bully as it is supporting the bullied.” Ian explained that at Edge Grove, this is built-in to their personal safety mantra, ‘PROTECT YOURSELF’, with three sub-categories of protecting your identity, your privacy, and your reputation. “Part of protecting your reputation is not marking yourself out to be someone who acts inappropriately online, or makes hurtful comments,” said Ian.

Will Gardner echoed the importance of educating children about their conduct online: “Education about respect and empathy is key to help children and young people understand these boundaries,” he said. “Lessons around positive commenting and being a good friend online are also helpful ways to educate young people about being kind online.”

So what are the facts? 

The Ditch the Label survey also revealed that 70% of young people believe that work needs to be done to reduce the effects and prominence of bullying, and that Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, are three of the most likely places to receive abuse online. Data from reporting platform and app Tootoot reveals that in 2017 cyber category cases of bullying grew by 51%, compared to 2016. All this data is incredibly insightful, and shows a clear trend in the growing problem of cyberbullying.

But what is being done about it? I recently spoke to Adam Bradford, a victim of ongoing cyberbullying, and living proof that it is not only school-age children that are being attacked online. Twenty-six-year-old Adam has been the target of cyberbullies since the age of 22, and the vicious language and threats which he has received have greatly influenced his life. Speaking to Adam, I learned that the ease and volume with which online bullies seem to spew their hate is somewhat astonishing, and despite being able to turn off notifications and even leave social networks, the effects don’t stop there: “I think we’ve got a really, really strange dynamic at the moment where people seem to be using these [social media] forums in a really divisive way. And if you’re the victim of that, it’s not just the comments, it’s the feeling that you’re under attack, and that will stay with you whether you’re online or offline.”

Alongside the issue of cyberbullies being able to hide behind anonymity online, which is often a big driver for unacceptable behaviour, there is also the issue that there is currently no official definition of cyberbullying in UK law, and it is therefore very difficult to legislate. As Adam commented: “People seem to think that because [online abuse] is digital, it’s a bit more transient, that you can just delete it. I think that words you write online should be governed by the same kinds of laws as something you would write offline.” Indeed, if a bully was to publicly publish false or defamatory information about another person in print, they could be reprimanded under UK laws such as libel and slander. These laws do not currently apply to comments on social media sites, however. You can, of course, apply to the social networks themselves in order to report the offensive content and have it removed, but this can often take a long time. Adam has had this experience himself, and explained that despite reporting the content within a few days of its being posted, it took a long time for Twitter to respond, and that “Facebook have never even responded at all. And this complaint is going back a couple of years now.”

There is an argument here then, that as Damien Hinds called for in his recent request for an educational revolution, tech companies need to take more responsibility for the products that they produce for young people. There is, however, still a strong onus on society – and particularly on our education system – to teach young people to respect each other online, and to understand how cyberbullying can be just as damaging, if not more so, than face-to-face attacks.

There is clearly no easy answer to the problem at hand, but it is just as clear that something needs to be done to keep our young people – and all people – safe. And if the powers of technology can be harnessed to push this agenda forward then so much the better, especially if it can prevent any further increase of the problem. After all, prevention is better than cure.