Bullying in schools is nothing new. In the middle of the 19th century it was recorded in literature in the form of the odious figure of Harry Flashman in Tom Brown's School Days and it no doubt existed long before that. But the advent of the internet and the multiplicity of outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and the like mean that where knowledge of an incident might be confined to those who witnessed it, and at second hand by a few more who heard about it, now incidents of bullying can be recorded and distributed widely, to be seen potentially by unlimited numbers and lasting forever.
Cyber-bullying is, as St Bede's College rector Justin Boyle observed this week, widespread and "if we ignore it, we do so at our own peril". St Bede's has moved commendably quickly and decisively against four pupils guilty recently of bullying another and posting a photograph of their actions on a social media site. The pupils were stood down for three days and warned that any future such conduct would meet harsher punishment.
According to research conducted several years go by the internet cybersafety and security concern Netsafe, one in five school pupils have been bullied in some way through the internet. The company says it deals daily with calls from schools for assistance in removing offensive material from social media sites.
The impact of cyber-bullying has become all the more severe as smartphones have proliferated.
As anyone with teenage, and younger, offspring knows, children are tethered to their phones. Communication is practically instant and, when hurtful, can be devastating. It is regrettable, but it seems to be in the nature of the internet that much of what is communicated is snarky and cruel and worse.
Bullying, magnified by such communication, is capable, in the words last year of then-law commissioner Professor John Burrows, of "derailing lives". New technologies, as he rightly observed, could have effects that were "more intrusive and pervasive, and thus more emotionally harmful, than in the pre-digital era".
Burrows was speaking as the Law Commission delivered a report on internet regulation, which included proposed remedies to curb cyber-bullying. Justice Minister Judith Collins has said she intends introduce legislation adopting many of the commission's proposals, among them measures creating an agency to deal with complaints about objectionable material and others making it an offence to circulate offensive, false or menacing material.
This is fine as far as it goes but it will, of course, deal with any bullying only after it has occurred. It would be much better if such behaviour could be curbed beforehand. To this end, most if not all schools nowadays have programmes designed to instruct children not to engage in or tolerate bullying online. These may be having some effect. It is heartening that in the St Bede's case, for instance, the internet posting was very soon brought to the attention of teachers at the school.
But, ultimately, parents must bear the greatest responsibility in seeing that their children behave well in cyberspace. A good deal of cyber-bullying comes from young people not understanding quite how damaging what they do might be. Any parent giving their child a smartphone or allowing them to use the internet should also take the time to make sure they are aware of the power of the internet.