“It was like she’d hit someone, but in a different way”. (Girl aged 15 on witnessing cyber-bullying).
We don’t know very much about cyber-bullying, which for most people reading this was probably not a significant issue in their teenage years. Yet with the rapid expansion of internet access, mobile phone ownership, and the use of social media, there is growing concern about its prevalence and impact, particularly following the tragic recent death of Hannah Smith and the ensuing debate about the social network Ask.fm.
Cyber-bullying mostly affects children. According to the charity BeatBullying, more than a quarter (28 per cent) of 11-to-16-year-olds have been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated through the use of mobile phones or the internet. This equates to more than 350,000 children, some of whom end up being seriously victimised. A recent study by the NSPCC found that 10 per cent of the same age group are targeted daily by internet trolls. The risk of being cyber-bullied is greater for the most vulnerable: 16 per cent of children with special educational needs and 13 per cent of children receiving free school meals experiencepersistent cyber bullying, compared with only nine per cent of children overall.
The impact of cyber-bullying, particularly persistent cyber-bullying, can be very serious. One survey found that 11 per cent of cyber-bullying victims reported feeling depressed, five per cent reported that they had self-harmed, and three per cent said that they had attempted suicide. And up to half of all teenage suicides are linked to bullying, many of whom, like13 year old Sam Leeson in 2008, will have been bullied both physically andvia the internet.
Politicians, parents and even teachers believe that accessing inappropriate content via the internet is the main online risk for children,yet child-on-child violence is not only the most common threat in cyberspace but also potentially the most devastating. Cyber-bullying can follow’ victims everywhere, including into their homes, and may be less noticeable to others and therefore harder to prevent or confront. An embarrassing picture snapped on a camera phone can find its way across the web in mere seconds and the children involved may be set up to be ridiculed by millions of people. The internet provides a degree of anonymity by distancing perpetrators from their victims and can reduce any sense of moral responsibility a perpetrator may have for his/her actions. The risk of detection is low.
At the end of July, the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee published its report on e-crime. It makes virtually no reference whatsoever to cyber-bullying. What were they thinking of? This is a signficant problem and needs to be taken more seriously by parents, statutory agencies and, above all it would seem, politicians.