Online Bullying

Odd Socks Day on 16 November is the first day of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week and encourages us to celebrate what makes us unique. It reminds us that bullying is often targeted at those seen as different because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, special educational needs or disability.

In some ways, the online world can provide a respite from this type of bullying because of the ability to use an avatar or a fake profile to represent yourself in whatever way you wish.

But sadly, anonymity and a sense of disinhibition when operating behind a keyboard and screen can encourage bullying behaviour online and can lead to children texting or writing things that they would hesitate to do face to face. And other imbalances can also come to the fore; such as differences in gaming or other technical expertise, ability to purchase desirable “skins” or other gaming status symbols, or popularity as evidenced by “likes” and “followers”.

Bullying can have a serious and long-term effect on children’s confidence, mental health and educational attainment so it is really important to identify it and deal with it early. Online bullying can be particularly devastating due to the fact it can take place 24/7 and can be very public.

Education is important. We need to teach children about good digital citizenship as soon as they begin to interact with others online. And that is not just a matter of saying “be kind” or “don’t bully”. Every generation of new users needs to understand that once they have shared something online it goes out of their control. It can be shared again, commented on, altered or used in ways they did not intend, and it can be very difficult to remove. They need to know that others will make judgements about them based on what they say, share, like or comment on. And they need to be aware that their digital reputation can affect them both now and in the future.

We need help from technology companies too and thanks to the efforts of the UK government, some steps towards prioritising children’s safety online have been taken. The Age Appropriate Design Code will become effective in September next year and companies should be working towards that already. It requires the best interests of the child to be a primary consideration when designing and developing online services likely to be accessed by a child. Such organisations will be required to uphold their published community standards. This means that if they say that they do not tolerate bullying, then “they need to have adequate mechanisms to swiftly and effectively deal with bullying incidents.” The Online Harms White Paper suggested an independent regulator to direct ways in which firms should deal with bullying and other abusive behaviour, but this has not yet passed into law.

Instagram recently introduced an anti-bullying tool which uses artificial intelligence to identify bullying language and prompt the author to think again before sending. It’s not a magic bullet but it is a step in the right direction. It also introduced a “Restrict” function – a more subtle option than Blocking. It helps victims to filter bullying comments without alerting the bully that they have done so. These are welcome signs of technology companies using their skills to help address some of the problems of online bullying.

The Age Appropriate Design Code also requires organisations to provide “prominent and accessible tools to help children … report concerns.” Sadly, many children do not tell. Research by the anti- bullying charity Ditch the Label revealed these reasons: scared that telling would make things worse (38%), they were embarrassed (34%), they were worried they would be called a “snitch”(38%) or they didn’t think it would be taken seriously (27%).

It is important to teach children about the availability of blocking, restricting and reporting functions on the apps and platforms they use, about how to report bullying at school and about the availability of confidential advice services. Schools, parents, carers and other children can all help to encourage victims of bullying to tell by opening up lines of communication, assuring children of their support and being sensitive to signs that something isn’t right. Let’s use Anti-bullying week to address these issues, but let’s not forget that bullying happens all year round.

Gooseberry Planet offers a number of scenarios for different age groups addressing this issue, each one of which is supported by Parent Advice Sheets.

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