Stephen Fry reflected yesterday that the Internet is like a city with all the same cultural joys and societal problems of the physical world. So, in many ways, it's of little surprise that bullying is as much a feature of the world wide web as it is of the playground.
In fact, according to statistics gathered by Beatbullying, whose Anti-Bullying Week currently runs until 22 November, almost a third of all cyberbullying begins offline. The Internet and mobile phones have just become an extension of that arena - further tools for the tormentors to wreak the abuse.
For parents, of course, it's a double bind. As with the playground itself, there are both positive and negative sides to the Internet. It's an enriching experience and a potentially harmful one too, in indirect ways - as with unsuitable sites - and directly with exposure to bullying and abuse.
The frightening difference is that although there is supervision - as with the teacher in the playground - in the online world, the numbers are just too many to monitor. Social networks like, Bebo, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all have people to whom you can report abuse except, unlike teachers, they're not actively watching. Worse, is with that IM services and mobile phones, there's nobody watching at all.
This week, the world and the online community is banding together to draw focus to the growing problem and to bring government legislation and a duty to the owners of these virtual playgrounds to help rapidly reduce bullying online, as it has been in our schools since the 70s and 80s. While it's impossible to completely shield children from the chance of cyberbullying at the moment, there are a few tips for parents to help with the problem.
1) Join their networks
To prevent your children from taking part in Facebook, Twitter, Bebo and others is equivalent to some kind of social death for them. Banning from these sites or the the Internet altogether is only going to make you the focus of their frustrations. It will not help bring in the sense of trust which children would need to confide in you to let you know that they're having the problems in the first place, be it online or in school.
Instead a sensible approach, that we heard from one parent, is to make a deal whereby your children can join social networks so long as you can befriend or follow them too. That way, you'll be able to see the way they're behaving towards the rest of the world and whether their responses might suggest that they are being bullied. Equally, you'll be able to see if they are the bullies themselves.
At the same time, you have to respect what it is they might say outside of this realm. You're not going to build trust by picking them up on their every word. It might also be advisable not to be active on their network either. It may well cause some embarrassment and open them up to ridicule.
Make sure your children understand how to protect their data on a basic level when online. Be sure that passwords are not told to people outside the family. One classic bullying attack is for someone to post under your profile pretending to be you. It's not uncommon for fall-outs between best friends, so make sure that these passwords are kept as safe as they should be. For the same reasons, teach your children to log out of their profiles when they leave a computer - particularly important when using public machines.
Finally, teach them how to deal with abuse if it does come their way. The best ways to manage hurtful comments is to delete and ignore them and to block the attacker from interacting with you again. Each site has its own privacy settings and ways by which you can achieve this.
3) Consider limiting internet use
This is a tricky one as ostensibly there's nothing wrong with people sitting on the Internet all day. In fact, many Pocket-lint readers would be quite happy if their children wired themselves into their desktops. That said, some people may wish to limit the amount of time their children spend online. If you are going to, then make sure the deal is equitable. If your child is being bullied it may be that it's near impossible to get them off the computer and is something worth looking out for.
4) Monitoring software
This is not for everyone and Pocket-lint is not here to tell you whether it's a good idea or not but monitoring software is an option. Company's like Symantech offer complete solutions for tracking any computer and internet use on the machine on which it's installed, and if you want to know exactly what your children are doing on line then this is a sure way of finding out. It also might circumvent the desire to place a limit on their time online.
The obvious things to remember, though, are that people do not appreciate being spied upon and that obsessively trawling through transcripts of conversations is just as dangerous for parents. What's more, the younger generations are almost always more tech savvy and they will know that this software is running if you're not careful.
5) Look for the signs
Children and particularly teenagers do tend towards all sorts of mood swings anyway but some of the signs suggested by the anti-bullying agencies are worth looking out for. They may become obsessed with being online at all times or opt for a total avoidance of it whatsoever. As with all kinds of bullying, they may fear going to school more than usual. They more also withdraw from their social circles or exhibit increased anxiety, depression or anger. If your child is showing some of these signs then they might be being bullied, but there's just as good a chance that they're not.
6) Report abuse
As we said before, social networks may not be actively watching, but they will listen if users report abuse. Facebook promises to get back these e-mails within 72 hours and sites like Bebo, which itself was the forum for 30% of the cyberbullying attacks as uncovered by Beatbullying, has dedicated buttons for reporting these problems. In some cases, the bullies may be kicked off the networks but, if you're not satisfied with how they deal with your issue then you can always take it beyond them for action.
7) Involve the Police
Harassment and defamation online is illegal, as are malicious or threatening phone calls, emails or text messages. The police will take these incidents seriously. Make sure to keep a log of abusive phone calls or IM conversations as they happen as well as screen grabs of social networking abuse to present as evidence if necessary. Without proof that it's happening, there is little the police can do.
8) Video bullying
There are many well documented cases of cyberbullying on video websites, like Happy Slapping attacks. This is, of course, illegal and YouTube and others will immediately remove these videos. From your perspective, make sure to take a look at the user account of the person who posted the footage. There may be clues as to their identity - other videos or profile details - and it may also be possible to get help in tracking them down by their IP details.
Capturing a copy of the footage might also help for when presenting to the police. Do make sure to be discrete about this though. Remember that this evidence might be painful to see again for those bullied.
9) Be supportive and seek outside help
It takes a great deal of courage for anyone to admit they're being bullied, whether you're a child, teen or adult, so make sure that you are supportive as a parent, if you're lucky enough for your child to come to you for help. According to the survey, 69% of young people who have been cyberbullied would take advice from their peers online whereas not as many would go to an adult. BeatBullying runs a CyberMentor service where victims of bullying and abuse can talk via IM online with trained young people aged between 11-25. If you suspect someone of being bullied online, it might be a good idea to point them to CyberMentor in as subtle a way as possible.
The important thing in all of this is to make sure you take action of some sort if you do think that your child, or anyone you know, is being bullied online. Remember that the victims far outnumber the bullies and the more those affected speak up, the more this issue is brought to light. The Internet is still young and it's taking time to learn how best to regulate it and for it to regulate itself. It will take time for the authorities to work out how best to deal with online attacks but so long as the bullied, and those who witness it, don't stand for the abuse, then the problem will be halted.
For further reading and advice, please visit BeatBullying.