In Bullying Around the World

Stemming the Tide of Cyberbullying in Ireland

Modern advancement in digital technology has its good sides and its bad. The Internet has greatly facilitated communications between individuals and cultures, both on a personal and professional level. On the flip side, it’s also opened a whole new world for criminal activity via cyberbullying, harassment and other forms of abusive behavior.

Cyberbullying cases in Ireland range from cyber stalking to online harassment, defamation, threats, revenge porn and more – much of which is conducted by anonymous offenders on social media. According to domestic violence social workers in the country, online abuse is on the rise.

How Cyberbullying Contributes to Domestic Violence in Ireland

“When we think of stalking, we think of someone hiding behind a bush or in a car, but in Ireland technology is the way forward,” says Deirdre Lawlor, a support worker with the Dublin 12 Domestic Violence Service. “We see abuse on social media, mobile phones, constant texting. We’re looking into teen dating abuse, which is getting huge. A lot of young girls are giving their boyfriends their [social media and email] passwords” making it easier for them to become cyberbullying targets.

Although online bullying can be done anonymously, statistics show that many cyber offenses involving young people are launched by their peers. In some instances, young people use private information and/or personal photos that were exchanged during a relationship to taunt an ex-boyfriend or girlfriend once the relationship has ended. Classmates have been known to turn against former friends out of spite. Online safety experts caution young people to use wisdom in sharing passwords, personal information or photos of a private nature as these could very well wind up being made public online.

In 2015, SAFE Ireland, a national organization that deals with domestic violence (DV) cases in Ireland, partnered with its U.S. counterpart National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), to help establish a ‘Safety Net’ program in Ireland.  The ‘Safety Net’ program, already in effect in the U.S. and Australia, is designed to combat cyber abuse and domestic violence.

In Ireland, the program would be used to educate Irish netizens on safe use of the Internet as well as provide training for DV workers, government agencies, gardai (Irish police) and judicial officials in how to deal with cyberattacks. Through the ‘Safety Net’ initiative, DV victims would learn how to preserve cyber abuse evidence and recognize the signs of a compromised digital device.

In a survey conducted by NNEDV in the U.S. of DV service personnel, 97% of the 346 survey participants said the victims they treated were being threatened and harassed by offenders online.

“When we did our survey, we found that the majority of technology monitoring by offenders is happening via social media and text messaging,” said Cindy Southworth, vice-president of NNEDV. According to Southworth, the same trend seemed to be true in Ireland as “That’s what was bubbling up in conversation with Irish advocates.”

Southworth found that after being targeted, many victims were hesitant to continue using social media, which only served to isolate them from relatives and friends with whom they socialize online. She felt the solution wasn’t for people to boycott social media but learn online safety techniques that could safeguard their social media usage.

Caitríona Gleeson, the program manager for SAFE Ireland, concurred that people shouldn’t have to stop using technology due to being abused online. “To tell someone not to use technology is to further disempower and isolate the person. It’s not that the technology is bad. The mobile phone isn’t going to hurt you, but how someone uses it can control you,” Gleeson said.

Gleeson felt the ‘Safety Net’ initiative could be modified to coincide with Irish laws. “We have stalking laws at the moment, but there’s a debate whether the law is up to date with cyberbullying and technology, so this is a question that the Law Reform Commission are looking to have answered.”

How Prevalent is Cyberbullying in Irish Society?

Since 2012, studies have been made to determine the prevalence of cyberbullying in Irish society. Research by the Anti-bullying Center at Trinity College in Dublin found cyberbullying alive and well on social sites. According to cyberbullying statistics gathered by the College, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys were involved with bullying online, either as a perpetrator or victim of cyberattacks.

As more Irish children gain access to the Internet, particularly social media, these figures are likely to rise. The Trinity College figures matched those of a study conducted by ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ which showed that 24% of 9-17 year olds in the country had been victims of cyberbullying.

Frances Fitzgerald, Children’s Minister of Ireland, was gravely concerned for the safety of Irish children, particularly if parents were lax in supervising their kids’ online activities. “Bullying can have an absolutely terrible and corrosive impact on our children and young people, on their confidence, their self-esteem, their mental health,” she said. “It’s abusive of young people and desperately damaging. We already have high suicide rates and it’s the most vulnerable that will be hurt.”

A news story reported in the Herald newspaper in Dublin revealed how online bullies were terrorizing a young boy 10 years of age on Facebook. The bullies created a fake Facebook page for the boy and posted malicious messages saying “Everybody Hates [name].” By the time the parents found out about the abuse, it had escalated to such proportions, they had little choice but to change their son’s school.

In February of 2013, the Dublin Institute of Technology published findings of a cyberbullying study by Brian O’Neill and Thuy Dinh regarding online bullying among Irish children ages 9-16. The following cyberbullying statistics sums up the results of that study:

  • Almost 23% of the kids and teens surveyed had experienced bullying, either online or off.
  • Online bullying occurred more frequently among teens, especially those who used social sites often.
  • Only 29% of the parents whose children reported being bullied online knew about the bullying incident; 68% were in the dark
  • 24% of Irish teens ages 15-16 who took the survey said they had bullied others; approximately half of this number had been cyberbullied themselves
  • More young people experienced hurtful messages than any other type of online bullying
  • Approximately 44% of young people surveyed said they experienced long lasting effects of bullying abuse
  • Approximately 28% suffered in silence, trying to correct the problem on their own; 71% confided in a parent or friend; only 6% spoke to teachers
  • 48% responded to the abuse by blocking the offender; 15% reported the abuse to the website or an Internet advisor

Cyberbullying in Ireland: Detrimental to Mental Health

According to a 2013 Oireachtas (Irish legislature) report on cyberbullying and social media, cyber abuse is taking a toll on the mental health of Irish children. The report suggested schools and employers issue guidelines to help stop cyberbullying activity in their respective environments.

“Social media is having a negative effect on Irish child and adolescent mental health services in terms of cyber-bullying, exposure to unsuitable violent and sexual material, as well as excessive use of social media websites instead of actual social interaction,” declared a spokesperson for St. Patrick’s Hospital.

The Oireachtas Communications Committee had scheduled hearings on the dangers of online bullying after news stories emerged about the suicide deaths of various Irish teens due to cyberbullying. Ciara Pugsley, age 15, from Co Leitrim, Erin Gallagher, age 13 and her sister Shannon, age 15, from Co Donegal, were just a few examples of teens who took their own lives as a result of being bullied online.

After much deliberation, the Committee made the following recommendations to help counter cyberbullying issues at home, in schools and at work:

  • Social sites should delete all accounts established by children below the age limit recommended by the site
  • Online protective guidelines for teachers, counselors and other professionals who work with kids should include how to handle bullying incidents and ‘inappropriate use of social media’
  • Employers should establish company policies that clearly identify cyberbullying behavior and outline what actions the company will take against cyberbullying acts. Employers should also be aware that cyberbullying could be construed as harassment which is a crime under Irish law.
  • Police and judicial officials should receive training in how to deal with cyberattacks
  • Online safety education should be integrated into Ireland’s schools to include training for both teachers and students
  • Young people should have greater awareness of cyberbullying guidelines to include safe practices for using social media sites

When it came to legal action against cyber abuse, the Committee felt it best to keep bullying cases out of the judicial system, when possible, with the exception of ‘cases which are persistent or unresponsive to other forms of intervention.’

The Committee also felt that the country had ‘sufficient legislation’ to cover abusive behavior online although ‘identification and follow-through’ may pose a problem. “… the costs involved in pursuing a case through the courts may be prohibitive and this is a matter which requires further examination,” the Committee commented.

Irish Teens: Main Targets of Cyberattacks

A 2015 global survey conducted by the market research firm YouGov revealed that teens in Ireland are more likely to be cyberbullied than their counterparts in other countries. The following cyberbullying facts were gleaned from this research:

  • One out of every four Irish teens were bullied online as compared to one of five teens in the other 10 countries involved in the survey
  • Irish teens had little knowhow or skills in dealing with bullies online; 45% said they felt ‘helpless’ when it came to cyberbullying; 29% confessed to feeling ‘completely alone’ when targeted
  • 25% of teens surveyed confessed to having suicidal thoughts after being bullied online
  • Approximately two thirds of Irish teens said internet bullying was much worse than traditional bullying; half of them rated cyberbullying more of a problem than teen drug abuse
  • Nine out of 10 Irish young people said coping with online bullying would be easier with social media support from their friends

In an effort to prevent cyberbullying from further damaging young people’s lives, Vodafone Ireland initiated the #BeStrong anti-cyberbullying campaign aimed at building the emotional resilience of young people who were being bullied online. As teens often have a hard time expressing how they feel in words, the campaign encouraged the use of ‘support emojiis’ created by Vodafone to convey feelings of sympathy, compassion or support for friends targeted by cyberattacks. In regards to the use of emojiis, clinical psychologist, David Coleman said:

“We all know that the non-verbal element of our communication is as important as what gets said in conveying our meaning to the other person. In an online world there is no such non-verbal behavior. Instead we rely on acronyms and emojiis to explain the emotional tone of what we are trying to say. The development of these emojiis, by Vodafone, gives more choice and an easy shorthand for teens to show support, caring and empathy with their peers who are being bullied. Making it easy for teens to support and stand up for each other might lessen the distress and isolation that cyberbullying can cause.”

Jan O’Sullivan, Ireland’s Minister for Education and Skills, felt the #BeStrong initiative would prove to be highly beneficial in helping teens deal with bullying online. “No one who is experiencing bullying of any form should suffer in silence and this is particularly true in terms of cyberbullying,” she said.

Concerning the #BeStrong campaign, Grainia Long, CEO of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) said, “As a society we need to work together to tackle cyberbullying and equip young people with the confidence and skills needed to safely navigate this new world they inhabit and this campaign demonstrates how this can be achieved and utilizes mediums that young people can connect with.”

Irish Schools above EU Average in Handling Online Safety Issues

In the 2014 Net Children Go Mobile Report: Full findings from Ireland, researchers evaluated how Irish schools fared in handling online safety issues with their students. According to the report, Irish schools rated above the European Union average with teachers being extremely supportive when it came to providing information and guidance how to use the Internet wisely. When compared to other European countries, teachers in Ireland rated higher (89%) than many of their neighbors (69%) in Internet mediation and support. The findings also showed that parents in Ireland were more actively engaged in Internet safety with their kids (87%) than the average European parent (77%).

The following cyberbullying information and data on children’s online usage was also gleaned from the report:

  • 20% of Irish youth reported being bothered by something they experienced online within the past 12 months – twice as many as was reported in an EU Kids Online survey for 2011
  • 35% of Irish kids ages 9-16 used smartphones for daily online usage; laptops came in second (29%) followed by tablets (27%)
  • Instagram was the social platform most frequently used by Irish young people with 42% of kids ages 9-16 using it to share photos
  • Cyberbullying incidents in Ireland rose from 4% in 2011 to 13% in 2014, occurring most often on social sites
  • Up to 21% of Irish kids ages 9-16 have seen sexual images online or off, with social media networks being a common pornography source. Sexual risks rated second in harmful Internet experiences.
  • Irish youth encountered more negative content online (16%) in 2014 than 2011 (12%); this percentage, however, is lower than the 25% European Union average

There’s no doubt that the digital environment in Ireland is rapidly evolving to where more and more children are becoming active online. As children obtain personal ownership of digital devices, their online activities and experiences will only increase with time. Currently, the smartphone is the most popular means of Irish children getting online with personal laptops coming in second.

According to report figures, Irish children’s main venue for online activity is their own home, specifically from the privacy of their bedroom. Approximately 72% of Irish youth access the Net from their home daily. Home Internet access tends to increase as children grow older, escalating from 53% at ages 9-10 to 92% for young teens.

Since the 2011 EU Kids Online survey, Irish youth have grown in developing their Internet skills to include adopting online safety habits. Kids who use smartphones, laptops or tablets frequently to go online are more tech-savvy than those who don’t own mobile devices.

Primary School Children Experience Bullying Online

In 2015, research of cyberbullying activity among primary school children was conducted by Zeeko, an Irish startup based at Nova UCD (University College Dublin) designed to teach adults and teens how to use the Internet safely. Zeeko members visited more than 45 Irish schools across the country with their training programs. In the process, they surveyed 2,200 students concerning their Internet activities.

Zeeko’s Digital Trend Report revealed the following facts about cyberbullying at the primary level:

  • 15% of children in first class said they had experienced bullying online; for second and third class students, this figure rose to 26%.
  • Of fourth, fifth and sixth class students, the figures for experiencing online bullying were 24%, 23% and 34%, respectively
  • Students in 1st-6th class preferred using tablets for online activities as opposed to any other digital device
  • More than 30% of students in first and second class had 1-2 hours screen time daily; this figure rose to 50% for fifth class students
  • All age groups preferred iOS devices to Android across all age groups
  • Approximately 17% of primary children in first class had communicated with strangers online
  • More than 54% of 6th class students had spoken to strangers online

Joe Kenny, the founder of the Zeeko startup, felt concern over primary children’s ease in interacting with strangers online. “Children as young as six and seven are creating their own online digital relationships by interacting with strangers,” he said, a fact which parents should take note of.

Although the Internet has great potential as an educational tool, used inappropriately, it can be the source of great harm for young children. Rather than ban their kids from the Internet altogether, however, parents should teach them how to use the Internet safely and responsibly as well as supervise their online activities. In this way, kids can benefit from what the Internet has to offer and enjoy positive online experiences. Kids who are knowledgeable in Internet safety will have a better idea of what causes cyberbullying and how they can reduce the risk of becoming a target of cyberattacks.

“Many parents tell us that their children have apps or are using social media sites without their consent. Our advice to parents is that the best thing they can do is teach children how to navigate the internet safely,” said Kenny.

Grainne Kirwan, a member of the Department of Learning Sciences at the Institute of Art, Design and Technology (IADT), agreed with Kenny’s assessment, saying, “In reality the internet is so much a part of daily life now, it will soon be impossible for parents to restrict access to it. Parents and educators need to guide children on how to behave in online environments to reduce risk, and provide support for their problems and questions.”

Kenny established his startup Zeeko in 2013 after making an assessment on what he felt was ‘the lack of attention being given to the growing dominance of the internet in children’s lives.’ Zeeko’s goal is to train teachers, parents and students on how to navigate the Internet in a safe and responsible manner in an effort to minimize the risk of their becoming targets of bullies online.

Do Cyberbullying Laws in Ireland Need an Overhaul?

Ireland suffers from a growing problem with cyber abuse among both Irish youth and adults. In addition to 20% of young people experiencing cyberbullying in Ireland, research shows cyber bullies are also targeting one out of every 10 Irish adults.

In a recent survey of 1,000 Irish adults, approximately 25% of women and 16% of men reported experiencing ‘body shaming’ online. Over 33% confessed to receiving threatening emails and texts. Approximately 68% of all adult cyber abuse activity occurred on Facebook. Statistics show that revenge porn online is also an increasing problem in the country.

Despite an increase in cyberbullying activity, Ireland still has no official laws against Internet bullying as a criminal act. What the country does have is legislation that, under certain circumstances, can be used to prosecute cyber abuse activities as criminal offenses. This legislation includes:

  • The Non-Fatal Offenses against the Person Act 1997
  • The Offences against the Person Act 1861
  • The Communications Regulations (Amendment) Act 2007

Under the 1997 Act, people who use digital technology such as phone texts, emails, social media messages, tweets, etc., to threaten to hurt or kill others can be prosecuted for criminal activity. Both the Communications Regulations Act and 1997 Act can be used to prosecute individuals guilty of online harassment, especially through the use of a phone. The Communications Regulations Act provides ‘protection against telephone messages that are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing. It also covers persistent telephone calls without a reasonable cause.’

Many public service organizations and political figures in Ireland feel it’s time to overhaul Ireland’s legislation to cover the onslaught of cyberbullying activity facing Irish society. The negative effects of cyberbullying can be felt in Irish schools, businesses and government agencies, yet too few offenders are punished for their crime. There are those that feel the country needs new cyberbullying laws with tougher penalties that will make bullies think twice before committing offenses online.

Survey after survey shows every indication that cyberbullying in Ireland is on the rise. According to David Fagan, specialist on health and safety law, “There is no specific legislation (in Ireland) which deals with this issue. Bullying and cyber-bullying need to be defined and penalties around such need to urgently be introduced” in Ireland. “We are way behind other countries when it comes to this worrying `issue. It is nuts that we are using archaic law. The law around (cyberbullying) is based in the Stone Age and has not kept pace.”

On the flip side, there are those who feel new cyberbullying legislation is not necessary and could do more harm than good in the way of restricting freedom of speech online. Ireland’s Communications Minister, Alex White, is among those that are not fully convinced that new legislation is needed to combat cyberbullying. He believes current legislation is sufficient to prosecute offenders who perpetrate cyberattacks.

“My default position is for freedom of expression,” said White, “with certain limits obviously – defamation, threatening behavior, all of those things. If we’re satisfied that those laws cover all these things I don’t think we need to change those laws. I’m on the side of the greatest possible freedom of expression subject to ensuring that people are protected, particularly children.”

Labor Senator Lorraine Higgins disagrees with White’s stance. In early 2015, Higgins proposed legislation that would make online posts inciting people to harm themselves or commit suicide a criminal offense. Her Harmful and Malicious Electronic Communications Bill 2015 would come with a penalty of up to 12 months in jail or payment of up to €5,000 in fines for individuals convicted of this crime. The senator was a victim of cyber abuse herself, having received a number of online messages threatening to cause her harm.

In regards to free speech, Senator Higgins defends her bill against proponents that say cyberbullying legislation will curtail freedom of speech. Her bill, she says, is about “curbing abuse and threats in our online world” and not designed to restrict a person’s freedom of speech online.

“It is an internet safety bill which is designed to protect children who might cry when they look at their computer screen, whose esteem is damaged, who have become withdrawn and don’t want to go to school,” said Senator Higgins. “It’s about their parents who feel powerless to help and protect them. It is about restoring decency to our online debates and engagement. It’s about internet safety. And, tell me, who could possibly be against that?” The outcome of this new cyberbullying legislation is still pending in Irish legislature.

Workplace Cyberbullying in Ireland

In a recent Europe wide survey regarding workplace bullying, Ireland was rated as the ‘7th worst country in Europe’, with 6% of Irish employees saying they had experienced bullying on the job. According to Tom O’Driscoll, Head of Legal Affairs for SIPTU, Ireland’s main trade union, workplace bullying could consist of physical abuse, name calling, pressuring employees or speaking badly of their performance, both in person or online. O’Driscoll acknowledged that workplace cyberbullying was becoming quite widespread in Irish business culture.

When online bullies harass people due to their religion, race, age, sexual orientation, nationality, disability or ethnic origin, it becomes discrimination which is against the law in Ireland under the Employment Equality Acts.

Although there is no legislation in place to deal directly with workplace cyberbullying, employees can use current laws against harassment and discrimination to make a cyberbullying claim against an employer who they feel is guilty of such abuse. Employees need only to establish a ‘cause of action’ to support their viewpoint.  This cause of action may include any of the following:

  • A civil courts claim requesting damages due to psychological harm caused by cyberbullying acts
  • Proof of defamatory statements made by workers and/or management online against an employee in relation to his or her performance or employment
  • A claim that an employer failed in his or her statutory duties in regards to providing a safe work environment for employees under the Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Act 2005
  • A claim that online bullying amounted to harassment and/or discrimination, a violation of Ireland’s Employment Equality Acts 1998-2011
  • A claim that employee had to resign due to intolerable cyberbullying actions and seek retribution from the Employment Appeals Tribunal under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977-2011

By putting anti-cyberbullying policies in place and enforcing no-cyberbullying measures in their business, employers can avoid these claims and maintain a productive work environment. It’s much easier (and more constructive) to prevent cyberbullying problems from occurring in the first place than it is to face legal claims against managers or work colleagues due to cyber abuse on the job.

Irish Teen Stands Up to Cyberbullying

Bullying is an age old problem. Cyberbullying, on the other hand, is a product of modern Internet technology. In the ‘old days,’ young people could count on their home being a safe haven from bullies at school. Today, the extensive reach of cyberbullying can breach home, work and school as well as numerous other environments. By using social sites like Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp, cyberbullies can spread their malicious content almost instantly to online audiences far and wide.

This was the scenario faced by Luke Culhane, a 13 year old Irish teen who decided to take up the challenge of fighting against cyber abuse in his local community. A cyberbullying victim himself, Luke knew firsthand the pain and suffering that online bullying could cause. Using his talent as a filmmaker, Luke created a 2 ½ minute anti-cyberbullying video production which he posted on YouTube to illustrate his personal experience with bullies online.

The video was released in February of 2016, in honor of Safe Internet Day (February 9). It didn’t take long for the video to go viral, reaching thousands across the globe. To date, the video has been viewed over 40,000 times.

Luke’s video portrays an average teen (played by himself) leisurely walking down the street when out of the blue an offensive social media message appears on the screen of his smartphone. The nasty missive causes the teen to develop a bloody nose. As the online abuse continues throughout the day, the teen’s injuries escalate, first to a black eye and then a broken arm. The message is clear – each insult is likened to a physical assault that causes the teen pain and harm.

Just because people can’t see the physical effects of online bullying right away, it doesn’t mean cyber abuse isn’t causing damage to a person’s life. Over time, the cyberbullying signs will appear, in either a physical, mental or emotional manner. Some people suffer the negative effects of cyberbullying all their lives.

“… even though its cyberbullying and even though it’s virtual, it affects real lives,” Luke says. Through his video, Luke wanted to get the message across that ‘harassment of any kind is not okay.’ Released under the hashtag #CreateNoHate, the video was designed “To help other people who are being cyber bullied and kind of raise awareness about the whole ‘stop and think before you send a message,’ because you might not know you are cyberbullying, but you still are,” Luke explained.

The film ends with Luke explaining how to stop cyberbullying and what young people can do to counter cyberattacks. Meanwhile, the hashtag #CreateNoHate continues to trend throughout Ireland and countries all over the world.

Cyberbullying is not a new phenomenon in Ireland. Ireland has a history of school bullying, cyberbullying and workplace bullying that has been difficult to overcome. Through online safety programs, teachers, parents and students have a chance to learn online safety that can protect them from the abusive behavior of bullies online. In like manner, anti-cyberbullying measures and policies can protect businesses from legal action by employees due to cyberbullying problems. Ireland also has the opportunity to introduce stiffer cyberbullying laws to greater curtail cyber abuse in Irish society. The combined efforts of public, private and government entities can help stem the tide of cyberbullying in the country.

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