Digital technology has been a tremendous boon to countries all over the world. The Internet has made its mark in almost every culture, enhancing education, communications and socialization as well as boosting economies. Digital advances, however, also have their drawbacks. Along with all the good, consistent Internet use increases the risk of cyberbullying, especially among the younger generation.
By definition, cyberbullying is bullying that occurs online via social media sites, chat rooms, e-mails, gaming sites, etc., or through text messaging and phone calls on smartphones. With so many young people using online services for socialization, it was only a matter of time before bullies would take advantage of this medium to perpetrate bullying acts. Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Youtube and Ask.fm are just a few of the dozens of social sites cyberbullies use to taunt their victims.
Cyberbullying in the UK: An Alarming Problem
In the UK, cyberbullying has grown to be an alarming problem for children of all ages. According to reports from BullyingUK, helpline calls relating to cyberbullying issues increased by as much as 77% within a 12 month time period. Cyberbullying not only hurts victims but can disrupt entire families, causing fear, anxiety and depression. The following cyberbullying facts were compiled from a national survey conducted by BullyingUK in which 1,761 people responded:
- 43.5% of children surveyed between the ages of 11 and 16 were bullied on social sites
- 56% of those surveyed reported seeing bullying online
- 42% said they felt insecure going online
Cyberbullying research conducted by Steven Walker in 2011 showed that 29% of bullying victims between the ages of 11 and 19 stopped attending school due to cyberattacks. Of those that remained in school, 39% ceased to socialize outside the boundaries of their institution.
“As the use of social media amongst young people continues to grow,” says Walker, “cyber bullying statistics in UK is only likely to get worse (as) the Internet provides a new means through which children and young people are bullied.”
Walker’s prediction can be corroborated by the following cyberbullying statistics from the 2014 annual bullying report of the UK charity Ditch the Label:
- 7 out of 10 young people reported being bullied online; 37% of these experienced online bullying frequently
- 20% of youth surveyed said they experienced extreme Internet bullying daily
- 54% of young survey applicants reported being victims of Facebook bullying; Facebook, Twitter and Ask.fm were the mediums that presented the highest risk of cyberbullying
- It’s estimated that 5.43 million UK children and teens have had experience with cyberattacks
According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, 17% of children in London alone have experienced cruelty online; 25% of these have witnessed friends or classmates being victimized by cyberbullies
In addition to surveying children, parents were asked to give input on their experience with online bullying. The results were not all that positive.
- Only 15% of UK parents thought their children were safe online
- 47% of UK parents had concerns about their kids being cyberbullied; 15% were sure their kids had been victims of bullying online.
- 44% of UK parents had reason to believe their child was a cyberbully
Since 2013, concerns have been raised about social sites like Ask.fm where young people post personal details and photos about themselves and allow most any viewer to comment on their profile. Reviews of the site reveal that many of the comments made are offensive, ranging from insults and threats to immoral sexual advances. A social site that’s frequently used to affront children and teens by allowing their peers to embarrass and humiliate them in front of an audience of thousands should be carefully examined. By supervising the online activity of their tweens and younger teens, parents can protect them from such dangerous sites.
Taking into consideration the prevalence of cyberbullying in the UK, parents should take time to educate their kids on online safety to protect them from the dangers of cyberattacks. Young social network users need to know how to use the Net safely and most importantly, how to deal with cyberbullying if they are targeted. Young people who see or experience signs of cyberbullying should report the incident immediately to a parent or adult they trust. If the incident occurs at school such as receiving a malicious phone call or text, students should report it to their teacher.
Cyberbullying is just as dangerous as traditional bullying, or even more so, seeing how rapidly it spreads and how far it reaches. By keeping an eye out for cyberbullying signs, parents and teachers can help young victims get through any cyber offense they may be going through. It often takes the concerted effort of teachers and parents to prevent cyberbullying and protect the children in their care.
Effects of Cyberbullying in the UK
Internet bullying can occur at any time or any place where there is an Internet connection. Young people are just as much at risk of being bullied online at home as they are at school or at work. Although cyberbullying occurs quite a bit among young people, adults can also be targets or perpetrators of cyberattacks.
Cyberbullying can affect every aspect of a young person’s life. Lack of appetite, sleep loss, drop in school grades and skipping school are common signs that a child or teen may be suffering from bullying. The emotional trauma can even lead to self-harm or attempted suicide. Research shows that 10% of teens who are bullied in school have tried to take their own lives; 30% attempt self-harm acts.
In the UK, cyberbullying has taken a toll on students from all walks of life. UK news stories exposing the dangers of Internet bullying have been aired on national television, printed in newspapers and posted online for years. UK young people are those who have suffered the most from cyberattacks.
In July 2013, Daniel Perry, a 17 year old secondary school student, committed suicide due to being blackmailed online. Daniel began online conversations with someone he thought was a teen girl his age, but turned out to be a member of an extortion gang. Shortly after sharing ‘private’ material with his newfound ‘friend’, the gang demanded he pay them money to keep this material from going public. Daniel committed suicide to escape the humiliation of what he had done. Months earlier, Daniel had been the victim of bullies on Ask.fm, a well-known young people social site.
A month later, 14 year old Hannah Smith took her own life at her Leicestershire home after being bullied incessantly on Ask.fm for months. David Smith, her father, discovered the bullying upon her demise. Before the tragedy, however, Hannah showed ‘no signs’ of being on the verge of suicide. Both bullying cases reflect the serious consequences that hateful bullying behavior can have on a young person’s life.
Through the Internet, bullies can torment their victims anywhere and anytime. Malicious posts only take a few minutes to spread far and wide, reaching people inside their homes, workplaces, schools, shopping malls, cafes and any other location that has Internet connection. “Before someone could be bullied at school but could go home and have respite from it,” says Dr. Lucy Maddox of the British Psychological Society, “now it can go on for 24 hours.”
Daniel Raisbeck, co-founder of the British anti-bullying charity Cybersmile, reiterated the dangers of internet bullying when he said: “For a person to be manipulated in their home and bullied in their own loving home which is supposed to be where you feel safe… if that is undermined, what has a child got?”
Mr. Raisbeck created Cybersmile after his tween son experienced online bullying on a gaming site. The game required that competitors form teams to compete one against the other. Mr. Raisbeck saw warning signs that something was amiss right away as his son’s demeanor began to change as he played in the living room of his home. During the course of play, his young son began to receive abusive comments and banter online. According to Mr. Raisbeck, his son’s account was hacked and the game playing “got very nasty, out of control.” Fortunately, Mr. Raisbeck was able to talk to his son and help defuse the situation.
Many kids, however, feel uncomfortable talking to parents about bullying incidents and keep the matter to themselves. Suffering in silence can have devastating effects, as evidenced by the teen suicides of Daniel and Hannah. By maintaining a close relationship with their kids as they grow older, parents can help them through the difficulties they face with middle school or high school cyberbullying attacks.
In Daniel Raisbeck’s opinion, everyone should take responsibility for helping to stop cyberbullying and “get rid of online hate”. “Schools, authorities and the companies themselves have to do their bit and make sure that the message gets across so this behaviour is seen to be wrong and socially unacceptable,” Mr. Raisbeck said.
“We need to have a massive campaign showing the real emotional cost of losing someone through this and how it happens. I count myself quite lucky that I managed to engage with my kid before it went too far – and that’s where parents need to be.”
Who’s Responsible for Online Safety of British Youth?
Although online safety is a parental responsibility, many British parents feel they need help from local schools and government sources to keep their kids safe from cyberattacks. Students also feel schools aren’t doing enough to resolve online bullying problems.
Amy James, a 15 year old high school student from Wales, says that many of her peers have been bullied on social media but don’t tell teachers as ‘nothing will be done.’ ‘We don’t have proper lessons looking at social media at school but if we did, it might help people who are experiencing bullying. People need to be taught about the effect that cyberbullying can have,’ Amy says. Schools need to create greater bullying awareness so students know where to go for help and support. Teachers and staff also need training in how to use social media so they can educate students in online etiquette and expose the risks of using social sites unwisely.
Although UK schools offer Internet safety classes, students still fall into cyberbullying traps. Carol Phillips, a student support officer (SSO) at Crickhowell High School in the city of Powys, Wales, feels parents need to take greater responsibility for how their kids use the Internet in their daily lives. Most parents, she feels, purchase their kids high tech smartphones without understanding all they can get into with their device.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard of a parent or a sibling, with parental knowledge, putting a child on Facebook when they are below the age of 13. Of course you can’t monitor your children all the time, but there are steps you can take, including controls and filters, or looking at the PEGI age rating that appears on games,” she says.
As social media is so popular with British youth, it’s a favorite hub for cyberbullies to launch their attacks. Girls who are naive enough to text a naked photo of themselves to their boyfriend in private may very well see that same image on social media later on. Some parents feel schools need stricter rules concerning online behavior with serious repercussions to help keep students in line. Even though cyberbullying may happen outside the classroom, it drastically affects young people’s academics and future, making it essential for schools to get involved.
Liz Watson, head of Beat Bullying, feels UK schools need upgraded methods and measures to deal with bullying online. E-safety classes are just the first step towards creating greater cyberbullying awareness. From there, schools need anti-bullying policies that clarify how to handle bullying issues as they arise.
The Use of E-Safety Software to Curtail Cyberbullying Acts
In 2014, UK schools incorporated the use of bullying ‘slang translation’ software to monitor their student’s online communication for bullying behavior. The software contains a dictionary of slang words students use when referring to bullying, self-harm, suicide or other problematic behavior online. By spotting these words or acronyms in student communications, teachers can be alerted to potential cyberbullying acts.
Jonathan Valentine, the program’s developer, said, “We originally developed the software to deal with misbehaviour, but we decided to focus on e-safety and came up with the idea of a dictionary of certain words and phrases.”
After visiting UK schools and talking directly to students, Valentine created the list of acronyms and words used in the program’s dictionary, making it compatible to any UK school in the country. The dictionary contains words that deal with such problems as suicide, self-harm, sexting, grooming, racism, bullying, trolling and homophobia. Approximately 1,400 UK schools use the software to help teachers identify issues students may be having with any of these topics online.
Ultimately, parents are responsible for the safety and welfare of their children, to include their online activity. Schools, however, need to share in that responsibility. Cyberbullying can occur just as much during school hours as it can at any other time in a young person’s life. Online bullying can take a toll on students’ academic performance, hindering students from reaching their full potential.
British youth aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch of cyberattacks. A 2015 survey of NASUWT (British teacher’s union) members revealed that more than twice as many teachers had abusive material posted about them on social sites over the last year.
Approximately 60% of the estimated 1,500 NASUWT members surveyed mentioned receiving offensive comments online in regards to their profession. Of these comments, about 48% came from pupils, 40% came from parents and about 12% were from both. About 57% of the students posting offensive material online were in the 14-16 age range; 38% were between 11-14 years old and about one fifth were ages 16-19.
Some examples of online bullying included bullies posting teachers’ photos with insulting captions or sending sexually explicit texts. Sometimes inappropriate photos or videos were uploaded of teachers without their consent. In one case, bullies set up a phony social media account in a teacher’s name to post malicious content. The majority (64%) of teachers who were abused by parents on social media had received insulting comments about them or their performance.
Chris Keates, general secretary of NASUWT, expressed her concern about these cyberbullying cases by saying, “It is deeply worrying to see that the abuse of teachers has risen by such a huge margin this year. Equally concerning is that it appears that more parents are the perpetrators of the abuse. The vile, insulting and personal comments are taking their toll on teachers’ health and wellbeing and undermining their confidence to do their job.”
“Many teachers tell us that they suspect they are being abused online but dare not look, for fear they could never walk into their school again to have to face their abusers,” she continued. “While there has been some improvement in action taken on reported abuse, there are still too many cases where no appropriate action is taken and teachers are being left devastated, humiliated and traumatized.”
What Cyberbullying Trends are on the Rise in the UK?
In a 2013 National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) sexting survey, six out of 10 UK teens said they were asked for sexual photos and/or videos of themselves online. Of those who were asked, 40% said they created the images or videos and 25% said they actually texted the material to those who asked.
“These results show that sexting is increasingly a feature of adolescent relationships,” said Peter Wanless, head of the NSPCC agency. “It is almost becoming the norm that a young person in a relationship should share an explicit image of themselves.”
The 2013 NSPCC/Childline survey involved 450 teens from across the UK. It provided greater insight into young people’s attitudes and mindsets on the subject of sexting. Researchers also gleaned the following cyberbullying information from survey results:
- 58% of young people who texted explicit photos or videos to others said the images were sent to a boyfriend or girlfriend
- 33% said they were sent to an online acquaintance they’d never met
- 15% confessed the materials were sent to a perfect stranger
- Of those sending photos, 20% said they knew the photos were shared with others; 28% didn’t know if their photos were shared
- Over half of the teens surveyed reported being recipients of sexual photos or videos at some time; 33% said they had received sexting materials from strangers
Although it is legal in the UK for teens to have sexual contact at age 16, it’s a criminal offense to ‘take, hold or share “indecent” photos of anyone aged under 18’. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, however, it wasn’t likely legal action would be taken against children who were sexting.
UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) handles sexual abuse/grooming cases online. Their main concern is the risk of bullies getting ahold of ‘sexual’ images. Jonathan Baggaley, Head of CEOP’s education department, explains: “What we’re seeing is abusers taking advantage and getting images out of young people and then blackmailing them for more by saying, ‘If you don’t do more for me, I’ll send these to your family and friends.'”
Many in British society are calling for government programs to educate British youth on the dangers of sexting. In 2014, online safety was incorporated into the IT curriculum in British schools. Primary school-age children as young as 5 years old will be able to benefit from this education. Some people feel schools should also cover the subject within a social health/sex education program.
Sue Berkowitz, UK Deputy Children’s Commissioner, feels there’s a great need for comprehensive sex education and relationships programs in British schools. “Sexting is not an IT issue, it’s a relationships issue,” she said. “It must cover things like sexting and use of mobile technology, as well as all other aspects of relationships and sex education.”
In 2015, the National Crime Agency’s (NCA) CEOP command initiated an anti-sexting campaign to deal with the issue of grooming. According to the command head, Zoe Hilton, “We’re getting reports of difficult and sometimes harmful situations which have come about because of sexting.” “With smartphones and tablets, and new apps emerging all the time, this behaviour is becoming quite normal for teenagers.”
“We’ve being doing a lot of work to educate young people about some of the consequences of sharing revealing images and videos. Through this campaign, we want to help parents and carers talk to their children about how to minimise the risks, and to make sure the right support is there if things do go wrong.”
The campaign is comprised of short animated films developed in conjunction with researchers at UK’s University of Edinburgh, Sweden’s University of Linkoping and the German charity group “Innocence in Danger”. Parents can view these films at www.thinkuknow.co.uk.
Wikipedia defines a ‘troll’ as “a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or disrupting normal on-topic discussion, often for their own amusement.”
In the UK, trolling has been hitting news headlines for years. In 2015, it was estimated that one out of every four teens experienced the hateful impact of trolling. Experts consider this figure a “wake-up call” on the seriousness of this behavior. A British survey published by the UK Safer Internet Center involving 1,500 teens ages 13-18 revealed the inroads that Internet trolling has made in British society.
- Of the teens who experienced trolling, 24% were targeted because of their gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or physical or mental disability
- One out of 25 reported being abused regularly
- Four out of five teens had witnessed trolling within the last year
- 41% felt online hate incidents had increased within the last 12 months
According to survey results, teens who had disabilities or who were of minority group descent (African, Asian, Middle East, Caribbean) were of greater risk to be bullied. Social media platforms were the favored medium for trolling incidents. The good news is that many people came to the support of victims, posting favorable content on their behalf. Approximately 93% of participants said they witnessed friends supporting victims online.
According to Will Gardner, Director, UK Safer Internet Center, “It is a wake-up call for all of us to play our part in helping create a better internet for all, to ensure that everyone can benefit from the opportunities that technology provides for building mutual respect and dialogue, facilitating rights, and empowering everyone to be able to express themselves and be themselves online – whoever they are.”
The extensive exposure of British youth to trolling has prompted the UK government to include this abusive behavior in its laws against cyberbullying. UK is currently in the process of reviewing existing cyberbullying laws against such crimes as harassment, revenge porn, stalking, identity theft, hate crime, cyber theft and grooming (sexting). The government proposes to create one law to cover all “misuse of digital technologies and services.”
In the meantime, trolling can be prosecuted as a crime under UK’s Communications Act wherein it is illegal to send messages or materials that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character by means of a public electronic communications network.”
According to 2015 statistics from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), trolling convictions have increased tenfold from 2004 to 2014, with up to five convictions being made daily. In 2014, approximately 1,500 people were indicted for trolling – 70 of which were juveniles. Of the defendants who were convicted, 155 were sentenced to jail. Those found guilty of these acts can be sentenced to prison for up to two years.
Individuals who create fake online accounts using personal data from victims with the intent of trolling under a false name will also be subject to criminal charges. According to Alison Saunders, Director of UK Public Prosecutions, “Offenders can mistakenly think that by using false online profiles and creating websites under a false name their offences are untraceable. Thankfully this is not the case and an online footprint will be left by the offender.” This ‘online footprint’ can and will be used to prosecute such offenders. Both Facebook and Twitter already have measures in place to report bogus accounts.
In addition to coping with traditional stalking crimes, UK police must now contend with the growing problem of cyber stalking within the country. Cyber stalkers are individuals who use the Internet to infiltrate the lives of others with the intent of causing mischief and harm.
In some cases, cyber stalkers are complete strangers who become fixated on someone else’s life. In other cases, they are people victims know from the past such as an ex-boyfriend/girlfriend or disgruntled business partner who feels a colleague has done them wrong. Celebrities often suffer from cyber stalking fans who are overly obsessed with their lives. However, anyone can be a victim of stalking activities.
Cyber stalkers utilize the Internet to pry into others’ lives. They may use such platforms as social media, personal websites, dating sites, chat rooms or emails to gather personal information about their victims’ relationships, family or job in order to perpetrate an attack.
New spyware software makes it easy for criminals to hack into victims’ email and social media accounts, monitor their movements and spy on their lives. In 2014, police training programs were initiated in various UK cities to help deal with digital stalking cases that were arising.
A survey of cyber stalking victims in the UK conducted by the non-profit organization Digital Trust revealed the following:
- Over 50% of cyber stalking victims had received offensive emails or messages online
- 37% reported having their online accounts hacked
- 25% claimed they were physically followed
- 11% reported the stalker caused damage to personal property
Jennifer Perry, CEO of Digital Trust, was greatly concerned over the escalating problem. “People who wouldn’t necessarily have stalked before,” she said, “are stalking now” due to having cheap access to spyware that gives them greater control over victims’ computers. With modern spyware software, criminals can infiltrate people’s online communications and even activate their webcam to see what’s happening within their homes.
According to psychologist Emma Short, member of UK’s National Center for Cyberstalking Research, Bedfordshire University, digital anonymity can also contribute to the increase of cyber stalking crimes. “There is a lot of research about what’s called ‘toxic disinhibition’,” she said. “The [personal] barriers that are removed can be a positive thing, but the effect (can) also make you much more likely to be disinhibited negatively. Very quickly things can become very abusive.”
Detective Jon Gilbert, head of Bedfordshire Police’s cybercrime team, explains the various laws police have at their disposal to handle cyber stalking crimes.
“There are offences under the Public Order Act, the Harassment Act, the Malicious Communications Act, specific offences of stalking, and even in extreme circumstances where there’s been a significant impact on a victim with emotional distress you could even be looking at an offence of causing Grievous Bodily Harm.”
“Stalking is a type of harassment,” he says, “and as a law enforcement agency we would need to prove that a person is engaged in a course of conduct that’s causing harassment, alarm, distress and fear to another person. It’s about how the victim perceives the actions. Even things such as silent phone calls have been seen to be harassment due to impact that they can have on other people.”
Cyber stalking can easily transition into real life stalking at any time. Detective Gilbert encourages people who fear they may be victims of cyber stalking to report incidents to the police.
How Young People Should Handle Bullying Online
Not all young people are bullied online. It doesn’t hurt, however, for kids to be prepared for any eventuality. By being prepared, British teens and tweens are less likely to succumb emotionally if they find themselves the target of bullying online.
Kids should have someone they can turn to in case they are targeted by cyberbullies. A responsible adult can help young victims find perspective in cyberbullying incidents so they don’t get blown out of proportion. British youth also have the option of getting support from the Bullying UK helpline (0808-800-2222) or the email service found on Family Lives website.
It’s important parents and teens know what steps are available to them if bullied online.
On messaging sites such as WhatsApp, Whisper, Snapchat and Instagram, for example, young people can block bullies so they can’t see they’re online. They can also save messages or have them printed as evidence of being attacked.
Cyberattacks on social media can be reported to a person’s internet provider as well as the social site. Most all social network sites have report buttons for the purpose of helping them investigate bullying activity. Victims should collect and document all evidence of cyberbullying so they can prove their case once the culprits are found.
Online bullying at school can be reported to a teacher or school administrator. Workplace cyberbullying can be reported to a company manager or HR department.
Cyber stalking should be reported to British police. Online abuse that could have serious repercussions to victims should also be reported to police.
Although bullying isn’t a ‘criminal offense’ in the UK, per se, the country does have laws for prosecuting threatening behavior and communications which can be used in bullying instances if applicable. Some Internet bullying activities can be considered criminal offenses under the Malicious Communications Act.
Depending on the circumstances, UK prosecutors may utilize any one of the following laws to curtail bullying behavior:
- The Public Order Act 1986
- The Malicious Communications Act 1988
- Protection from Harassment Act 1997
- Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003
- Breach of the Peace (Scotland)
- Defamation Act 2013
Over the years, there has been a global awakening to just how dangerous cyberbullying has become. As a result, many countries have enacted cyberbullying laws to help dissuade online bullying activities. The UK and Canada as well as some U.S. States have some of the strongest anti-online bullying legislation in the world.
Under the UK’s Malicious Communications Act, bullies can be imprisoned for 6 months or longer as well as have to pay a substantial fine if convicted of cyber offenses. In the states of Idaho, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin, cyberbullying activities are considered misdemeanors punishable by prison sentences ranging from 3 months to one year or fines ranging from $500 to $2,500, depending on the crime.
Impact of Cyberbullying on British Society
In harming British youth, cyberbullying is undermining British society. The long term effects of online bullying can be devastating for young victims, destroying their prospects for a happy and productive future. Internet bullying may have similar characteristics to traditional bullying, but the consequences are often much more severe.
Liam Hackett, founder of the UK anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label, said: “We asked people to rate the impact cyberbullying had on their lives on a scale of one to 10, with one being not severe and 10 being incredibly severe. On average, the effect on their self-esteem was 7.5 out of 10, which can go on to affect their social lives and their optimism for the future. (Cyberbullying) is having a massive impact on young people and it’s heartbreaking to read.”
Through social, political and educational programs, the UK can continue to research why people cyberbully and educate its young people on how to stop this threat. By increasing cyberbullying awareness, schools and local communities empower students to report online harassment and take a stance against it. The combined efforts of schools, parents and government agencies can do much to make Internet use safer for British society. A society that’s free of bullying in all its forms will provide a higher quality of life for its people.
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