Cyberbullying – the use of technology to harass, threaten, embarrass or target another person – is an unfortunate part of modern life. Though often dismissed as mere banter, it can have a catastrophic impact on those suffering from it - even, as we shall see, leading to suicide. The good news is that there are a number of simple yet effective ways to protect yourself and your loved ones. In this specially commissioned article – kindly sponsored by PJ Care – Benedict Vanheems sets the scene.
Communications technology permeates our lives. It keeps society functioning and helps us to stay connected and informed. The pace of technological change only ever seems to accelerate and today it’s hard to imagine a time before mobile phones, email and the internet.
While these advances have undoubtedly had an overwhelmingly positive influence on our lives, technology can also have a dark side. Cyberbullies, often under the cloak of anonymity, are out to belittle, intimidate or harass – with sometimes disastrous consequences.
Cyberbullying takes many forms and affects people of all ages and backgrounds. Threats and aggressive or rude language used to intimidate or upset other people can be made online, via tweets, posts, messages or texts. Bullies may also post information online that the victim wouldn’t want to be made public, such as photos or videos. Anything posted online to hurt, harass or upset someone else counts as cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying can leave victims feeling overwhelmed and unsure of where to turn for support. Confidence takes a battering and a sense of isolation can creep in. Children are especially vulnerable, unwilling to tell an adult for fear of judgement or because they are embarrassed. With younger people spending more time online than ever, they may also fear being forced to close their accounts.
The constant presence of mobile technology makes it harder to get away from the problem, resulting in significant worry and distress that inevitably intrudes on home and personal lives. Persistent or severe cases of cyberbullying can lead to victims self-harming, while some have even resorted to suicide.
Knowing when a child or loved one is being bullied isn’t always easy. Some signs to watch out for are secretive or withdrawn behaviour, changes in appearance or personality (such as anger or depression) and friends no longer visiting or being excluded from social events.
What to do about it
Whether you are a victim of cyberbullying or concerned about someone who is, the first thing to understand is that you’re certainly not alone and there are ways to deal with the issue. Victims, especially children, need to know they can talk to someone, whether a parent, trusted adult or work colleague. Services such as Childline offer young people confidential help and advice on ways to beat the bullies, with Childline’s online message boards an encouraging source of solidarity and support from others in similar situations.
Childline reports that the fifth most talked-about concern from young people is now bullying and cyberbullying. The NSPCC, which runs the service, has this advice for parents who think their child is being bullied online:
- Make sure they know they can come to you for help
- Help them relax and take time out, away from electronic devices
- Teach them how to stay safe online and to block abusive or humiliating content
- Talk to your child’s school or club about what’s been happening
- Report online videos of bullying
- Explain to them that our differences are important and they make you who you are.
Staying safe online begins with keeping private information such as your address, school or real name private, which will help to avoid the unwanted attention of strangers. Consider what you upload or post – once it’s gone you’ve lost control and it can lead to repercussions later on. Question what others ask of you. Intimate photos can be used to blackmail and shame. Don’t let a moment’s carelessness cause untold worry and regret. When using a public or shared computer remember to log off after each session.
Almost half of children have received unkind profile comments, so teach them – and yourself – how to stay safe when using social networking sites. Check the security and privacy settings of your accounts and check you aren’t giving away more information than you’d wished. It’s also easy to remove or block friends, or limit your posts or tweets to friends or followers. There’s lots of advice specific to each social network online. Turn to page 15 for some useful sources of further information.
Ultimately sidestepping the cyberbullies starts with a little common sense, but even the most cautious of us can fall prey to nasty or inappropriate behaviour online. Use the tools and advice available to navigate the constantly changing landscape of our digital world, and help children to understand both the rewards and potential risks of time online. Like all types of bullying, we can put a stop to cyberbullying.
Many thanks to Kindred Drama students Scott Curtis, Amara Podd and Priya Roberts for acting as models for this piece
Safeguarding our schools
For Martin Beyford-Rew, Head of ICT Services at Thomas Deacon Education Trust, keeping children safe and happy when using information technology is essential.
The potential for cyberbullying in a school setting includes misuse of social media, emails and comments on pieces of work. All of these forms of bullying are recognised with measures in place to minimise the risks and collate evidence to support investigative work should an incident occur.
The Thomas Deacon Education Trust makes extensive use of software to effectively monitor what is being done on end users’ computers. Certain words trigger alerts and screenshots are automatically taken of that action, complete with a date and timestamp. These can be used as evidence if required.
Regular reports are compiled for our safeguarding teams. The reports are used to spot any trends and frequent names so that staff can then speak to those students. All pupils sign up to an acceptable use policy when they join us and they know that they will be monitored for safeguarding reasons.
Students also have the option to anonymously raise concerns, which go through to the appropriate member of staff. This ensures a safer environment, because not everyone feels comfortable talking openly about such things. Like many schools, our approach is proactive and technology driven. The safety of our students is paramount.
Too young to leave us
When 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley took her own life it came completely out of the blue, dealing a devastating blow to her family. In this heartfelt interview Ciara’s aunt – local artist and campaigner Charron Pugsley-Hill – explains how cyberbullying was to blame and what parents should be doing to keep their children safe online.
First of all Charron thank you for being so brave to talk to us about Ciara. Can you start by explaining the main differences as you see them between cyberbullying and more traditional forms of bullying?
Cyberbullying is very anonymous. Bullies can say things they wouldn’t say to somebody’s face, they are almost hiding. It almost divorces them from the reality. They can be as cruel as they like because there is no comeback. The other thing is there is no getting away from it. When I was bullied as a child it wasn’t like that because when you got home you were safe from that bully. Online bullying can be 24/7, especially with the way teenagers are constantly on their phones.
Ciara paid the ultimate price for a sustained campaign of cyberbullying. What happened and how did your family piece together the events leading up to that point?
It came completely out of the blue. My niece went out into the woods and hung herself. We had no idea she was being bullied online until that point. Then people admitted they were aware of this or that, so gradually we built up a bigger picture. When a child does this it’s so traumatic, so it takes a while for it to be processed and things to start coming out.
Ciara was heavily bullied on a site where comments could be left anonymously. That was a big issue for us, because you have no perspective when you are reading that stuff, it could be anybody. It makes you very paranoid. Certainly at the time there was no comeback with these companies. We tried to get information from them and they just didn’t want to know. We were trying to find answers as to why she was driven to take her own life. The police investigation was also very difficult for us especially when it did not lead to any action being taken.
So the obvious question for parents and carers is how do you keep children safe online?
Parents have to talk to their children. It is so important to ask them questions. One of the things I wish I had asked Ciara is whether everything was okay, whether anyone was being nasty to her online. Parents must educate themselves about the sorts of social media being used by their children because generally they’re not using Facebook any more. New sites come along that parents don’t know about. So it is about educating yourself and talking to your children. Ask them the difficult questions. Parents may feel they are interfering in their children’s lives, but I would say interfere in your children’s lives because often they don’t realise they are the victims of cyberbullying.
How would you suggest they do that?
Well, I used to take my sons out for a coffee or a sandwich so as not to have those conversations at home where we would be distracted. Another opportunity to start a conversation was in the car. If they aren’t looking at you face-to-face it’s not confrontational, it’s a conversation. Teenagers can be strange creatures and when it comes to their life online they are very private. And that’s fine, but they just need to know when to stop and ask for help from parents or other trusted adults in their lives.
Parents who never think this is going to happen to them need to realise that it could. We never thought this would happen to our family – we are a decent, loving family – and yet we have got this horrendous trauma in our lives.
Most parents didn’t grow up with the technology children are exposed to today, which makes this all very difficult to negotiate.
And teenagers haven’t built up that resilience have they, that experience. As parents we have a responsibility to look out for them. Yet too many people say I couldn’t possibly ask, but you really should. You can learn from our experience. Have those difficult conversations.
What should technology companies be doing to make it safer online?
They need to be doing a lot more policing and they need to be more upfront, talking to people and appreciating these issues and the effects of it. They almost brush it aside, though attitudes have got slightly better. I also think that social media companies should be required to have policies that identify those who make malicious posts. Perhaps people would think twice if they could be identified and prosecuted.
Ultimately they have to take responsibility because if their sites weren’t there, people wouldn’t be dying. Ciara is not alone. She is one of hundreds, possibly thousands around the world who have been driven to take their own lives. I also think that there should be stronger legislation around this area of online safety as technology companies are still getting away with too much in terms of safety online.
Children can’t be shielded from social media forever of course, so what would you regard as a safe age to introduce them to it and how should parents monitor what their children are up to online?
I think 13 is a reasonable age because by that time they are starting to get out in the world. Of course there are lots of great things about the internet and social media. It has brought the world together, which is incredible.
Parents should be monitoring what their children are looking at. When Ciara died I went onto my sons’ Facebook pages. I found some horrifying things and had discussions with them about whether they thought it was appropriate. One of their friend’s pictures was of all these knives laid out on his bed. I asked my son if he thought that was acceptable and I had a conversation with him about it. Of course he didn’t think it was acceptable so I asked him why he was still friends with this person. It is just about asking them – being sensible and not being afraid to do so.
And letting children have a childhood…
Absolutely. If they are online and doing all this sort of stuff at eight it’s just horrible isn’t it? It’s very hard for parents. Even with the situation we have been in there have been times when we have had great difficulties because my two boys have wanted to be online. They are online more than I would like, but that is their life. They are talking to people all around the world and I think that really opens up their minds, but I think that we are relatively careful now too.
So for me it is about having those conversations and having rules and boundaries. If you put them in early enough, children grow up being used to them, it is not an unknown. Of course, if parents are sitting there on the phone all the time – ignoring their child and not interacting – then they can’t expect their child not to be on the phone all the time also.
What about the other side of this – the children who may be cyberbullying?
In our case we now know that most of those who were doing the bullying were schoolmates of Ciara. Many of those children ended up in therapy and psychiatric care as a result of what they did. They didn’t think about the consequences. So that is another conversation to have with your children: are you being mean to somebody online, do you know what they are going through and do you realise the consequences if something happens? Because they could be prosecuted – all sorts of things could happen.
And at worst you’ve got that guilt for life.
Totally. I was contacted a few months ago by somebody who was a friend of somebody who thought his bullying online was part of the reason that Ciara died. This guy was having a bit of a breakdown. He wanted me to talk to this guy and basically reassure him. I couldn’t do that and it really hurt me. It was another kick in the heart, out of the blue.
So it’s not just that this person dies, you do your grieving and then that’s the end of it. This has changed all of our family for the rest of our lives. Each time we have a family get-together there’s a massive hole and we all think: I wish Ciara was here. And that will be the case forever. And we cannot change that.
Cyberbullying in the workplace
Are you a victim? Workplace cyberbullying is often subtle, but can have serious knock-on effects on private lives. Dr Pedro Areias Grilo, Consultant Neuropsychologist at PJ Care, takes us through the warning signs.
Cyberbullying at work, particularly within industries employing very high-functioning people can be subtle, with the line between assertiveness and bullying very blurred. The best way to protect people in the workplace is for companies to have clear policies and procedures in place. This is something that big companies usually have, together with staff training to tackle this issue.
The main concern when we talk about the prevalence of cyberbullying lies with smaller companies, where there are many examples of email abuse. Emails can be sent without cc’ing people in and then at a later meeting this absence of knowledge can be used to put them on the spot and challenge them as to why they haven’t done something, or followed something up. I also know of cases where people are asked to reply to specific emails, which are then used to inappropriately manipulate people and at times make people redundant. Then there’s being told that a meeting is happening at 3pm when in fact it starts at 2.30pm, so you go into the meeting late. Or situations where you are in a work webchat and people are giggling about comments, or parallel comments are being made about another member of staff.
Workplace bullying like this can leave people in a very vulnerable position, especially when you see the psychological effect it can have. It may start with feeling suspicious or questioning whether you are able to fit within a team; if you are a good professional or if you are able to do your job appropriately. But now imagine the consequences of that. You start going beyond the remit of your work to prove to yourself and to your work colleagues that you are worth being be part of that team. That of course is going to have an impact on your performance, particularly around your ability to concentrate and focus. You will also experience low self-esteem and worthlessness. You will start asking yourself if you are any good at what you do and so on. People will start experiencing episodes of anxiety, depression and in some critical cases people may even feel suicidal. As you can imagine this will impact on your personal and family life.
The positive side of this is that all companies can tackle the risk of cyberbullying by having very clear and open policies and processes in place to support people if they feel that they may be victims of cyberbullying or any other type of bullying. There is also online support for victims of cyberbullying, such as that offered by The Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA).
No one should have to suffer in silence. Talk to trusted work colleagues about your situation. Talk to your line manager, human resources department or, for example, a union representative. Check your company’s anti-bullying policies and keep a record of what is happening to you and who is involved. Don’t let it ruin your career and impact your home life.
From Facebook and Instagram to Snapchat and Tumblr, NetAware is a simple no-nonsense guide for parents from the NSPCC and O2 to the social media, apps and games that kids use today. The site includes recommended minimum ages and risk ratings for different types of inappropriate content. NetAware is available to download as an app or at www.net-aware.org.uk
The NSPCC website has a wealth of down-to-earth advice for parents and carers, including top tips for staying safe online and how to negotiate the complexities of bullying and cyberbullying. Visit: www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse
Absolutely everything you need to know about bullying and cyberbullying from charity Family Lives. The site has thorough advice on the best way to talk to your child about cyberbullying, features downloadable guides for both children and parents, and there’s a forum to share your experiences or concerns with others. Head to www.bullying.co.uk/cyberbullying/what-is-cyberbullying
This free, private and confidential service is available online, on the phone, at any time. Call 0800 1111 or visit www.childline.org.uk
The Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association (CABA) offers some helpful advice on workplace bullying at www.caba.org.uk/help-and-guides/information/dealing-workplace-bullying