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The growing problem of cyber-bullying

Although it’s been around for as long as I can remember, I appreciate that for most adults cyber-bullying is quite a new phenomenon. And I don’t quite think they’ve yet grasped how to treat it. Unlike other forms of bullying, its effects often aren’t seen until it gets completely out of hand, and sometimes when it is too late.

According to the cyber bullying charity the Cybersmile Foundation, every 20 minutes a child between 10 to 19 years of age attempts to commit suicide in England and Wales. While one in three children in the UK suffers from cyber-bullying.

However, apart from the occasional scandalous news story such as the recent suicide of Canadian teenager Amanda Todd, most of it is never brought to light. So what’s really going on?

In my experience, most cases of cyber-bullying incidents aren’t, thankfully, as bad as Amanda Todd’s story. They usually comprise of arguments on Facebook that turn into popularity contests. Someone will spark off the conflict with a claim or rude post on the other person’s wall or photo and it will lead to a string of abusive and sarcastic messages. The rules of the battle are to remain nonchalant throughout and the winner is decided by whose comments received the most “likes”.

It then becomes almost a spectacle with everyone watching the fight unfold and messaging each other on who they think is faring the best. The bravest friends stick up for their comrade with their own comments and those less willing to get involved will simply join the mass of likes. This goes on until the receiver or the poster of the original message has enough sense to delete it and the fight continues in private.

Unfortunately, not all cases are so harmless and some can lead to serious emotional damage. A friend of a friend was a recent target when girls in her year created a Blackberry messenger group about her. It was comprised of over 20 people messaging each other about how they should kill the “slag”, supposedly because she was going out with an older boy. They then added her to the conversation and she wasn’t seen at school for two weeks. A close friend of mine was also a recent victim of abusive texts after false accusations arose around her having cheated with somebody’s boyfriend. “I felt so isolated and exposed,” she told me, “There was nowhere I could turn where they couldn’t get to me”.

There are also instances of malicious public statuses, embarrassing pictures being sent round and abusive questions on sites such as Formspring, a medium on which anonymous questions can be posted to specific people. Teens hiding behind their anonymous identity can post extremely hurtful things, which they would never say in real-life, but which they feel are acceptable in cyber space. Those who don’t answer are often accused of being cowardly and as a result receive even more “hate”.

Over 80 per cent of children fear that cyber-bullying is getting worse. Due to the growth of social media, every move you make on sites such as Facebook and Twitter is watched and regulated. Just a slight slip such as an “uncool status” or adding somebody as a friend, who you supposedly don’t know well enough, leaves the perfect opportunity for bullies to strike.

Victims of cyber bullying are always told they should seek help from school but they can often be just as confused as the perpetrators themselves. Although it is the wrong thing to do, many teenagers believe that their only chance of survival in the social media jungle of bullying is to fight back with equally as harsh and hurtful comments. This just leads to more tension and leaves schools and authorities with no easy way of putting an end to it without being accused of showing favouritism to a particular side.

I spoke to the founder of the Cybersmile Foundation, Scott Freeman on what he recommends when he receives distressed phone calls from victims and parents. Many parents are extremely worried about whether their child is being cyber-bullied and often are not sure how to protect their children if they don’t even know if it’s going on.

They are told to look out for certain signs such as their child acting paranoid and protective about other people looking at their computer and not wanting to go to school. A big reason why children may not want to alert their parents to the problem is the fear that their privileges, such as having a Facebook account and surfing the web may be taken away. Parents must show that they are on their child’s side and want to help them not punish them.

Children who call the helpline are suggested to talk to either to their parents or a member of staff at school about it straight away. If given permission to do so Cybersmile will contact their parents to run them through what can be done. If the child feels uncomfortable with that they should talk to a close friend, the most important thing is not to suffer alone. Cybersmile also offers counselling for anyone who is really having trouble. Most children live in fear of being cyber-bullied and this shouldn’t go on.

The charity also raises awareness of the problem, they fear is growing, by giving talks in schools and universities. They are designed to shock students into thinking about what they do online and who they may be affecting. Cyber-bullying workshops are also on offer for parents and children in order to bridge the gap between both generations and work on ways to combat the problem.

Cybersmile is working on changing the harassment law which they feel is outdated because it does not include online bullying. They believe that the internet should be viewed as a public space in which people who are acting abusive should be punished by law. A petition calling for government action has already received over 1,000 signatures, in the hopes of helping to erase cyber bullying. The foundation is producing anti-cyber-bullying wristbands which will be available from the 5th November. The money raised will be used towards supporting their 24 helpline which can be contacted on 0845 6887277.

For more information about the Cybersmile Foundation visit www.cybersmile.org