[As ever, you can read this on the BBC News website]
The 12 year old daughter of a friend of mine is being pestered by a fellow pupil who sends her text messages and emails saying she is horrible. She has also been harassed over Microsoft Messenger, and the bully even went to the trouble of taunting her on Myspace and Bebo, encouraging other pupils to join in.
Cyber bullying like this is becoming more and more of a problem for children, and schools and parents are finding it hard to cope. Monitoring what happens in the playground can deter physical aggression and name-calling, and bus monitors can help on the trip to and from school, but different strategies will be required online, as we’re never going to find enough teachers to monitor every online interaction even if we wanted to.
Technical solutions won’t help either, as kids seem to be well ahead of their parents when it comes to finding ways to exploit the capabilities of their new toys, and pretty good at finding ways around the obstacles to inappropriate use we put in their way.
Whether it’s adolescent boys disabling content filters or bullies finding ways to abuse the new social network sites so as to cause pain and distress to others, the authorities are well behind the curve, and many parents have no idea how to deal with the problem. This is just as hard for parents whose children are the bullies as it is for the families of victims.
Fortunately it is an issue that schools, children’s charities and now the government are taking seriously. This week the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) launched a comprehensive anti-bullying guidance programme, Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-bullying Work in Schools. This covers cyber-bullying, and it is accompanied by an online awareness campaign on various social network sites which tries to draw children to a new anti-bullying website offering help, guidance and support.
The guidance was written for DCSF by Childnet International, who are also running a National Cyber bullying Conference this week to bring experts together. I know a lot about Childnet because my daughter is on their children’s advisory panel and I’ve worked with them on their Know IT All project.
One of the best things about them is that they always emphasise the positive aspects of being online while offering sound guidance about coping with the problems: too often those campaigning on the issue of children’s use of the internet seem to be completely oblivious to the benefits. As a result their message about the dangers makes little impact on young people, who can see the good and bad for themselves and want to make their own minds up.
At the launch Schools Secretary Ed Balls made a very important point, noting that ‘bystanders can inadvertently become perpetrators – simply by passing on videos or images, they are playing a part in bullying’. Helping children to understand that they can make someone else suffer by swapping photos or commenting on video clips, and that a ‘harmless bit of fun’ to one person could be agonising humiliation for someone else, is really important.
The DCSF advice for children may be sensible, but I fear it will be hard for them to put into practice. Not responding to malicious texts or e-mails is difficult, simply because we all want to fight back against those who hurt us, and being told to save texts and emails as evidence will not be easy when the desire is just to delete these hurtful messages and hope the bullies go away.
But even if it isn’t perfect, this week’s announcement shows how seriously the problem is being taken, and that may make it easier for children to tell someone about what is happening. As with physical bullying, the first step to resolving the problem is to admit that it is happening and find someone who can help you take the next step.
The schools campaign may also uncover another source of online bullying, that of adults.
Over the past few years we have seen how increasing awareness of how our children can be bullied at school has also helped us accept that workplace bullying is also a problem. As a journalist I’m used to getting abusive emails from readers who disagree with my point of view, and accept that it goes with the territory.
But bullying managers or co-workers can make life intolerable for adults at work, just as nasty kids the playground or chatroom, and perhaps we’ll soon see adults too admitting that life online isn’t always pleasant for them, and workplace practice will change to reflect this.
Taking something seriously without over-reacting is always tricky for politicians and parents, and as we’ve seen with policy over inappropriate websites there is a great temptation to try to close the doors and hope that the horse is still inside the stable.
The DCSF guidance on cyber bullying is neither sensationalist nor extreme. It acknowledges the problem and offers generally sensible guidance without looking for headlines or trying to clamp down on otherwise valuable activities. This is rare, especially when it comes to keeping children safe, and I suspect we have to thank Childnet for keeping us away from scaremongering.
The three ‘m’s – mobiles, messenger and myspace – matter too much to our children for them to give them up, or to accept too many limitations on what they can do. We will have to find a compromise over online activity, just as we find a compromise over bedtime, eating habits and going out in the evening. Fortunately it seems that Ed Balls feels the same way.