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Information technology is fantastic but in using it, children also open themselves up to unwanted attention and bullying. We take a look at the phenomenon of "cyberbullying"

As Dilys Morgan discussed in our last issue, whatever we believe, information technology, as an integral tool in our children’s lives, is here to stay. 

The internet breaks down barriers and gives young people a place to hang out and develop their identities and mobile phones keep parents and children in contact. Exciting times also lie ahead with a whole world of creative opportunities waiting to be explored beyond the click of a button. We are also one click away from opening ourselves up to unwanted attention and making ourselves easy targets for bullying. 

We are all potentially guilty of perpetuating such behaviour. How many of us have forwarded amusing photos or tales of friends’ antics without stopping to think how the object of the joke might feel? 


So how do we keep a balance and promote the use of technology for good ends to our children? 

Will Gardner of Childnet International, a charity which promotes safe use of technology, believes that we must recognise that parents and young people use technology differently. Referring to parents as technical migrants – using the internet for email and web research – and children as technical natives – immersed in interactive technology, he argues that parents need to keep up to date with technology and children’s use of it. 

There is a fundamental difference between our children’s technical knowledge and an adult’s wisdom – children need guidance in understanding how to behave in a virtual world. But it is almost impossible to constantly guide our children in their viewing or creating online. Mobile phones, switched on for 24 hours a day, are even harder to supervise. 

Cyberbullying – what is it? 

Bullying via technology is now a fact of many children’s lives. A recent study carried out by the Anti-Bulllying Alliance found that 22% of young people reported being the target of cyberbullying. It is important to firstly recognise bullying in its simplest form. Bullying can take the form of such behaviour as: aggressive behaviour, harassment, impersonation, outing, exclusion, denigration, stalking and threats. It can be intentional, unprovoked and often repeated over a prolonged period with the main intention to deliberately upset someone else. 

"Cyberbullying can be far more complex than playground bullying”

How is cyberbullying different? 

Cyberbullying can be more complex than playground bullying: 

  • There can be no respite from it as it can be 24 hours a day 
  • It invades our home or personal space It can rapidly get to a mass audience and escalate as messages are forwarded
  • It is easier for the bully to remain anonymous  
  • The target can be children, parents and teachers 
  • Anyone can perpetuate the bullying by simply passing on information or humiliating images 

However, it can be unintentional and children are as likely to unknowingly hurt someone through technology as become targets themselves. Often, children lack the awareness of the consequences of their actions and the depersonalisation by the distance in communication means that they cannot see the reaction of the target. 

How is technology used to cyberbully? 

Technology can be used in the following ways: 

  • Mobile phones – calls, texts, humiliating images or videos 
  • Instant Messenger (IM) – nasty messages, using someone else’s account to send messages via their contacts list 
  • Chatrooms – nasty, anonymous messages, groups decide to pick on or exclude individuals, pretending to be someone else to get personal information 
  • Emails – sending messages or forwarding unsuitable images, videos and viruses 
  • Social networking sites – sending nasty comments, images, accessing others’ accounts and sending messages, deleting information or making private information public, fake profiles to pretend to be someone else 
  • Webcams – making and posting embarrassing films on video hosting sites 
  • Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) school sites – posting messages, hacking into accounts and deleting schoolwork or posting inappropriate content 
  • Gaming sites and virtual worlds – players may pick on weaker, less experienced users  

How do we prevent cyberbullying? 

Children may not recognise that what they are receiving is a form of bullying. They may feel like no one would understand and feel powerless to know what to do about it. 

Childnet International suggests that parents can attempt to: 

  • Understand and talk about it – what it is and what the impact is 
  • Promote positive safe use of the internet and mobile – “netiquette” 
  • Show children that you understand the technologies they use or get your children to teach you and make the virtual world seem far less secret 
  • Teach children to respect others and be careful what they say online and what images are sent – get them to think before they send 
  • Keep passwords secret – only give mobile number or web address to trusted friends 
  • Use tools on internet provider services and turn on in-built safety and privacy features 

Responding to cyberbullying? 

Will Gardner of Childnet advises parents to: 

  • Reassure children that telling someone was the right thing to do 
  • Make sure children know not to retaliate or return the message 
  • Keep relevant information and evidence – don’t delete messages and take screen capture shots and print outs 
  • Change contact details, block contacts, leave the chatroom, check what information your children have on their homepage 
  • Contact mobile phone operators who have nuisance call centres and procedures to be able to change numbers 
  • Social networking sites and IM providers have Report Abuse, Help tabs or Contact links and can remove illegal content or content that breaks the terms of use and can delete accounts 
  • Police can advise on what needs to be done in cases of illegal content 
  • Report to school if it involves another pupil so they can take appropriate action through anti– bullying procedures. 

What else can we do? 

SMART rules are an easy set of rules to chat through with your children to remind children how to have fun but use technology wisely 

S = Safe – be careful not to give out personal information, name, email address, phone number, home address or school name 

M = Meeting – can be dangerous so only meet with parents permission when they can also be present 

A = Accepting – emails, IM messages, opening files, pictures and texts from people you don’t know or trust can lead to problems – they may contain nasty messages or viruses 

R = Reliable – someone online may be lying about who they are and the information you find on the internet may not be reliable 

T = Tell – tell your parent, carer or a trusted adult if someone or something makes you feel uncomfortable or worried