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Bringing an end to online bullying: Whose job is it anyway?

As we approach Safer Internet Day 2019, Martha Evans, Director of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, looks at what we need to do to tackle online bullying.  

Group of pupils looking at smart phones image

How much online bullying happens?

There is a significant amount of varied research out there about the levels of cyberbullying or ‘online bullying’ as we like to call it. Research from Public Health England in 2017 showed that 17.9% of 11-15 year olds reported being cyberbullied in the two months prior to being surveyed.

One child told us:

Bullying is far more wide spread now it is online - it’s not just your time in school. It affects your social life. Your social life is online. How many people like your status or your picture? Social pressures are just made worse.

Are children bullied online also bullied face-to-face?

We often hear adults talking about online bullying as if it’s a behaviour completely new and separate from ‘traditional’ or ‘face-to-face’ bullying. Young people do not see this distinction.

Repeatedly, we see people addressing cyberbullying separately from traditional bullying. Young people do not distinguish between the two. Adults often talk about ‘going online’, or as my Dad says ‘I’m going to go on the screen’ (whilst drawing the shape of a rectangle with his fingers) - but young people do not have this journey ‘online’. They are online. There is no difference between reality and digital reality.

As an anti-bullying sector, we tend to address online bullying and face to face bullying separately. However, as we know, they tend not to be separate for children and young people.

Research by Warwick University released in 2017 shows that there is a strong link between 'traditional' face-to-face bullying compared to cyberbullying. It found:

  • Online bullying doesn’t create large numbers of new victims
  • Most bullying begins face-to-face – with online bullying used as a modern tool to supplement traditional forms
  • 29% of UK teenagers reported being bullied – only 1% were victims of online bullying alone
  • Bullying intervention strategies should focus on traditional bullying as well as online bullying

This is not to say that online bullying does not present any new challenges. There are a number of elements that make it different:

  • 24-7 nature - the end of the school day no longer means respite from bullying.
  • A wider audience - There is the potential bullying incidents to be seen and shared by many, and one action can have a much longer lasting effect: , for example: a photo that you can't be removed.
  • Hidden identity - it is possible to hide your identity online which can make cyberbullying incidents very scary
  • Degree of separation - people who cyberbully often do not see the reaction of those experiencing it so it can sometimes be harder for them to see the impact of their actions.

On a more positive note, online bullying may be easier to evidence. Some information can be saved, e.g. by taking a screen shot - and shown to school staff, parents or police if needed.

What are the levers for change?

Research by Public Health England in 2017 showed that there were a number of protective factors that reduce a young person’s risk of experiencing online bullying. They were:

  • Good quality family communication where important things are spoken about, there are positive family communication and someone who listens

  • Students overall sense of belonging at school, good quality relationships with peers and teachers, PSHE that covers personal and social interactions and feelings of safety in school
  • How a child feels about their neighbourhood, particularly feelings safe in the community, having safe spaces to play and being able to trust people.

This research showed that schools have the biggest impact on whether or not a child will experience bullying online. That is why we focus so much on providing resources and tools for schools particularly during Anti-Bullying Week. We must work with schools and support them to tackle online bullying, but clearly, we cannot do this without also addressing face to face bullying.

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Industry must to do more

The main social media and gaming sites have taken steps to try to address the issue of online bullying. During our work last year on developing the Stop Speak Support campaign, supported The Royal Foundation, we asked young people how they felt about the main social networking sites. They said they could see improvements in the handling of reports and felt that there were clearer messages about community guidelines. They did not however, feel that this was in any way consistent or that enough was being done to keep children safe online and address online bullying. They worried about the adverse impact, particularly on groups most at risk of being bullied, and felt that industry’s progress was way too slow.

We know that age restrictions are not working and, when you work with young people, they will tell you the number of children using these 13+ sites. How is it possible that children can sign up to apps and they don't put privacy settings automatically at the highest setting possible? Why are some reports of online bullying and abuse treated differently to others? 

Dealing with the volume of reports and technical challenges are not insignificant, but children must be protected. 

Industry can and must do more. It is not good enough that these apps become multi-million or even billion pound companies before they think about how they really protect children online. We, as an anti-bullying sector, have a responsibility to put pressure on these sites to make changes. How do we encourage companies to put children's safety at the heart of the technology from their inception? If industry is not willing to do that, regulation is the only option. 

How can government intervene?

This brings us on to government. We are awaiting a White Paper from the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) outlining how they are taking forward their Internet Safety Strategy. In it will include measures to address internet safety, including online bullying, for children and young people. They will also set out what measures they will take to regulate industry. We join NSPCC’s call on government to implement an independent regulator, safer accounts for children and requirements to publish details about how social networks keep children safe and deal with reports/complaints.

We also welcome the government’s draft guidance that includes a strong focus on schools to cover bullying, online bullying and internet safety in the new statutory Relationships, Sex and Health Education coming in to force for all schools in September 2020. We hope this focus remains in the final guidance.

Finally, we are awaiting the publication of the Science and Technology Committee’s report on the ‘Impact of social media and screen-use on young people’s health’. We have submitted evidence to the committee and hope that the government will seriously consider the recommendations within it.

A message from young people

We all have a role to play in tackling online bullying, what will yours be?

Find out more about online bullying. 

30 Jan 2019