13 May 2011
Deputy CEO of Beatbullying Richard Piggin urges industry, charities and government to work together to successfully support and protect children 'networking' online
The internet has undoubtedly opened up a new world in which people can communicate and connect with one another in a variety of innovative ways. Social networking has evolved, and whilst there are clear benefits of new technology in facilitating communication, enabling positive interactions and relationships, there are problematic issues surrounding social networking sites, not least in terms of security and cyberbullying.
The UK has a high level of social networking site take-up in comparison with other countries. Ofcom research from 2007 showed that over half of UK children aged 13-17 who used the internet had set up their own profile on a social networking site. There's no doubt that this figure has risen significantly since then, for it is now uncommon to walk into any UK classroom and find more than a handful of pupils who are not registered on at least one social networking site. Indeed, the same Ofcom report revealed that one in four eight to 12 year olds have a social networking profile, despite such websites having an age restriction of 13. We're seeing more young people using social networking sites, and we're also seeing them being used by younger and younger children, which makes security and safeguarding an even more pressing issue for us all to address.Sharing and spreading
Many problems stem from the fact that social networking sites rely almost totally on the disclosure of personal information to facilitate connections and communications. Young people use these sites to express their identity, often posting very sensitive details of their lives and commenting on the details of others. This amount and type of information placed online, and the ease and speed in which it can be shared and spread, presents security issues and dangers for users to be exploited and bullied online.
There are concerns over identity theft and how personal details are kept confidential, particularly now that some sites have features and applications created by third parties, sharing information between sites. Advances in data protection, improvements in making 'default' privacy settings transparent and as protective for users as possible, and the increasing shift to 'opt in' rather than 'opt out' when companies ask for access to details allay some fears, but other developments, such as GPS location tracking mechanisms, only increase fears over safety. In any case, users need to be very careful over what information they choose to share on social networking sites.A false sense of security
One of the overarching problems of the internet is that it often provides a false sense of security for young people. The distance the internet affords, in that users won't see the immediate, physical reaction of others, means that young people are often less cautious in what they write online than they would be in real life. They reveal more information about themselves than they would offline and might be tempted to write more harmful and nasty messages than they would in the real world, emboldened by a false a sense of anonymity.
Two clear dangers, therefore, present themselves: unwanted and inappropriate contact from strangers, and cyberbullying. The majority of people using social networking sites do not pose a threat, and indeed, most young people use social networking sites to sustain friendships usually made offline, rather than to make new friends. However, there is still a problem that for some the number of 'friends' they have online is used an indicator of popularity and so users are driven to contact other users or accept requests to be friends with people that they do not know. Add this to the amount of personal information often disclosed by users, and the ease in which contact can be made, often anonymously or under a pseudonym, and adult predators see social networking sites as a way to make contact with, and groom, children. However, as the European Internet Safety Technical Task Force acknowledges, risks to children from adult sexual predators on social networking sites, though dangerous, are very rare.
The most common danger faced by children and young people online is cyberbullying – the use of new technology to deliberately harass, bully, threaten, upset or humiliate someone else. In 2009, Beatbullying released a report examining the nature and extent of cyberbullying in the UK. 'Virtual Violence: Protecting Children from Cyberbullying' revealed that 30% of 11-16 year olds had experienced some form of cyberbullying, with one in 13 suffering bullying online over a prolonged period of time, or through multiple methods on a number of sites. Perhaps most interestingly, there is an increasing amount of research highlighting how particular groups of vulnerable children, such as those who are looked after, young carers or the disabled, are more likely to be cyberbullied, and for the cyberbullying to be particularly persistent.Cyber-susceptible
We need to acknowledge and understand some of the specific problems and challenges that social networking sites pose in relation to cyberbullying. Firstly, the internet allows this form of bullying to take place 24/7. Children can be targeted at any time, and even in the once perceived sanctuary of their own home and even bedroom. For the bully, the internet gives a level of distance and anonymity; whilst for the bullied, not always knowing who their bully is can make it even more frightening. Finally, the speed in which information is shared means that the audience for cyberbullying is much larger than it would be offline. For many young people being cyberbullied, these factors make cyberbullying more difficult than offline bullying to escape from or deal with.
The consequences of cyberbullying are no less traumatic than those that follow face-to-face bullying. The UK media has picked up on a number of high profile cases in which children have committed suicide following relentless online hate campaigns waged on sites like Bebo and Facebook. These are only the most extreme manifestations. Research is beginning to document the increased isolation, poor educational attainment and self-destructive behaviour that readily follow cyberbullying.
Whilst bullying is a major problem on social networking sites, it is also prevalent on other sites and interactive environments online. Instant messenger facilitates real-time chat with multiple users, and as such, bullying is often reported. Exposure to negative social behaviours (although not necessarily bullying) through online games is also common. Other related problems revolve around the danger of children spending excessive amounts of time online, and negative implications include sacrificing sleep and/or school work, cultivating a hostile perspective on social situations, and failing to acquire the 'soft skills' necessary to build healthy relationships.
So what can we do to protect children and young people online? As is so often the case, it is not one single person's responsibility or one single approach that will work. Social networking sites themselves have an immediate responsibility, but governments, parents, teachers, charities and even law enforcement agencies also have a significant role to play.Reporting and responding
If a child is being bullied on a social networking site, then the website has a duty to act. A user should be able to do two things: report cyberbullying (and expect it to be dealt with effectively and quickly) and get support and help. As such, reporting mechanisms on social networking sites need to be made easier and simpler, and websites need to respond and take down cyberbullying material within a timeframe of no more than six hours. For every hour that cyberbullying content stays online, there is the possibility for thousands more people to see it, or add more, and the situation, instead of being dealt with, continues to worsen. Transparency in how websites are dealing with reports of cyberbullying should be increased, and there should be clear sanctions for those who cyberbully, including removing and blocking access to the relevant sites.
Simultaneously to reporting the problem, a child experiencing cyberbullying needs to be able to access appropriate help and support. Social networking sites are not experts in providing this, but as best practice they should be signposting and referring users to places where they can get help immediately – ideally just one click away.Peer mentoring
In 2009, Beatbullying launched CyberMentors, an innovative and unique programme that trains young people with the skills to be online peer mentors, who are then available offline in their school or community, as well as online through a purpose-built, safe and secure social networking site1
to support others who are going through the experience of bullying or have wellbeing issues they need help with. Qualified, accredited counsellors are also available on the website, when a more serious and therapeutic intervention is needed. CyberMentors is already having a huge impact, with over a million unique users visiting the site in 18 months. 4,000 young people have been trained to date, and over 150 UK schools are running CyberMentors, reporting a 41% reduction in bullying. CyberMentors works with the UK government, agencies including the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and industry partners including Google, to keep children safe online.
Responding effectively to incidents of cyberbullying is important, but prevention should be everyone's first aim. There is an argument that young people leave themselves open to security risks by being unaware of the risks and the steps they can take to minimise them, such as increasing privacy settings and being careful about what information they post online. Education is therefore crucial, and both teachers and parents have a responsibility to educate children about how to stay safe online. Prevention programmes, working directly with young people, are being introduced in the UK, but there is much more to do, particularly to engage and involve parents in the issue.Law and order?
Finally, we need to consider what role legislation can play in protecting children online. There is currently some confusion about how offline laws and enforcement mechanisms can and should be applied to online activity. As such, many serious incidents, which would be considered criminal in an offline capacity, are not being dealt with. However, there is precedent of anti-cyberbullying laws in a number of US states, and the introduction of a specific piece of UK or EU legislation, such as a cyberbullying act, would make it against the law for children, young people and adults to be cyberbullied. It would protect those being cyberbullied, giving them recourse in law, whilst also giving schools and the police a clearer remit and a system to investigate cases with additional powers to act.
All of the suggestions demand more attention and more prominence, but combined they offer a framework of how we can support and protect children online. The internet offers so many benefits, and the majority of people use it positively and without malice, yet we are increasingly aware that we need to do more to protect users from some of its potential dangers.
Only an integrated approach, with industry, charities and government working together, can successfully achieve this.1