Sorting out the cyberbullies

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One downside to new technology is an alarming growth in virtual harassment. Mark Blois and Vicky Lapins consider how schools can respond now that bullying has gone digital.

Schools and bullies and have a long and intertwined, if unfortunate, history. Some may believe society has become more violent and aggressive over the decades, but at the same time it is ever less tolerant of such behaviour and its consequences. The myth that bullying is ‘character-forming’, ‘part of life’ and ‘a rite of passage’ is no longer acceptable. An intensified media spotlight on bullying, together with a growing tendency for those on the receiving end to resort to the courts, is seeing schools increasingly held accountable in law for their actions and omissions in this area.

For schools to get it right on this issue, a precise definition of what constitutes bullying is crucial when it comes to establishing the existence and extent of the duty of care upon schools. A series of cases in the courts have, over time, clarified the parameters of what constitutes bullying in a legal sense.

A case in 2001 brought against Isle of Wight Council provided an objective assessment of bullying, which gave rise to the DfES advisory pack Don’t Suffer in Silence. A further action against Enfield Borough Council a year later established that behaviour needed to be “deliberately targeted and persistent” in order to constitute bullying. Finally, a school’s duty toward bullied pupils was recognised in a case against West Sussex County Council, also in 2002, which established that a school can owe a duty of care towards a child outside of the school gates.

Under the School Standards & Framework Act 1998, state-maintained schools have specific duties to combat bullying, and must have anti-bullying procedures in place. Independent schools have similar obligations under the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003.

All children and teachers are asked to sign up to the Government’s Anti-Bullying Charter for Action. Meanwhile, other government initiatives such as Making the Difference and Don’t Suffer in Silence work alongside organisations such as Kidscape, the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Bully Free Zone and Ofsted to produce strategies aimed at reducing incidents of bullying, supporting victims and dealing with children who bully. The profile of bullying as a problem is further highlighted every year through Anti-Bullying Week.

The last couple of years has seen the rapid rise of a new type of bullying, which harnesses the modern technologies that all teenagers use: mobile phones, email and web-based chatrooms. Collectively known as cyberbullying, this type of aggression is defined by Childnet International as the “sending or posting of harmful or cruel text or images using the internet or other digital communication devices”. This is reflected in the DfES’ definition as “an aggressive, intentional act carried out by a group or individual, using electronic forms of contact, repeatedly over time against a victim who cannot easily defend him or herself”.

In 2001, mobile telephones were among the most popular Christmas present for children, and over the next two years cyberbullying rose by 30 per cent, according to children’s charity Kidscape. At the same time we have seen an explosion of social networking websites where teenagers meet and chat ‘virtually’. As a result, taking a picture or video clip of a fellow pupil, and sending this to others to make him or her feel threatened or embarrassed, or much worse, filming and sharing physical attacks (the practice known as ‘happy slapping’), are now part of the bully’s armoury.

The Anti-Bullying Association has identified seven types of cyberbullying, ranging from abusive text messages, emails and phone calls, to bullying in internet chatrooms, social networking sites and instant messaging:

  • text messages: unwelcome texts that are threatening or cause discomfort
  • pictures or video clips taken using camera phones and sent to others to make the victim feel threatened or embarrassed
  • mobile phone calls: silent calls or abusive messages, or stealing the victim’s phone and using it to harass others, to make them believe the victim is responsible
  • threatening emails, often sent using a pseudonym or somebody else’s name
  • chatroom bullying: menacing or upsetting responses to children or young people in a web-based chatroom.
  • instant messaging (IM): unpleasant messages sent as children conduct real-time conversations online
  • bullying via websites – use of defamatory blogs (web logs), personal websites and online personal polling sites.

The advent of cyberbullying adds a new and worrying gender dimension to the wider problem of bullying. Ten years ago, psychologists thought of aggression in verbal and physical terms, traditionally seen as a male domain. But cyberbullying is more akin to relational or indirect bullying, such as rumour-spreading, where girls are more likely to be involved.

Unlike other forms, cyberbullying can follow children and young people into their private space and outside school hours. It allows the user to bully anonymously or from an unknown location, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cyberbullies can also communicate messages to a wider audience with remarkable speed, often remaining unseen and unidentified. There has also been a significant increase in social networking sites for young people, which can provide new opportunities for bullies.

This type of bullying has rapidly become a vast and growing problem. A four-year study of more than 11,000 children published in 2006 found that:

  • nearly 15 per cent of those surveyed had received nasty or aggressive messages
  • more than 10 per cent of UK teenagers said they had been bullied online
  • 24 per cent knew of a victim of online bullying
  • 44 per cent of respondents knew of or had received threatening emails or instant messages
  • around 33 per cent knew of instances where bullies hacked into email accounts and sent embarrassing material from them
  • 62 per cent had heard rumours or malicious gossip spread online.

A school is under the same obligations to tackle this particular form of bullying as any other, but must also recognise its own particular difficulties. Guidelines already exist for those managing websites, email services or chatrooms to ensure that they are used safely. The industry has already acted to take on cyberbullies, with helplines (including Chat Danger, Stop the Bully, Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation, Kindsmart and Cyberbully) warning about the potential dangers of interactive online services and offering advice for schools, parents and children. The DfES will also be consulting in the coming weeks with major internet service providers and mobile phone operators to explore what more can be done.

The Government’s own recently published guidelines are a useful step in helping schools to address the issue of cyberbullying. The DfES guidance Tackling Cyberbullying set out simple steps that the schools, parents and pupils can take to prevent cyberbullying and deal with incidents. From a school’s perspective, the guidelines recommend that its mandatory anti-bullying policies include strategies to deal with electronic forms of bullying, as well as clear rules on the possession and use of mobile phones in school.

All e-communications used on the school site or as part of school activities off-site should be monitored and restricted if necessary, and students are to be told not to respond to abusive emails, text messages or phone calls. Members of staff have a duty to make sure that they are familiar with their role in dealing with cyberbullying.

Staff responsibilities include:

  • teaching children safe internet etiquette
  • applying school policy in monitoring electronic messages and images
  • keeping up a dialogue with parents about emerging technologies their child might be using
  • ensuring that parents know what steps to take if they suspect their child is being cyberbullied or is bullying someone else.

The guidance recommends that parents ensure that they and their children understand how to use technology safely and aware of the risks and consequences of misuse. For example, parents are advised to use parental control software, and their children to use moderated chatrooms.

These may be only guidelines, but have been given added strength by the Education & Inspections Act, giving teachers a legal right to discipline pupils and strengthening their authority to take firm action on bullying. This new legislation will also send a strong message to parents and pupils that bullying will not be tolerated, with court imposed parenting orders to compel parents of bullies to attend parenting classes or face fines of up to £1,000.

The phenomenon of cyberbullying can give technologies such as the internet, mobile phones or email accounts a dangerous and frightening aspect, but technology itself is, of course, a morally neutral medium, and can be a channel for comfort as well as threat. While technology can be used to bully, the internet can also be a sanctuary for the victims of bullying by masking their differences and allowing them to be part of communities beyond their locality. Hence the importance of measures to protect young people from those who use technology for oppressive purposes. In the words of schools minister Jim Knight, schools must “tackle bullying in cyberspace with the same vigilance as in the playground”.

Mark Blois and Vicky Lapins are education law experts at Browne Jacobson.

This article is taken from Managing Schools Today Issue 16-3