Technological innovation means children are more digitally connected than ever before and, sadly, more exposed to cyberbullying.
But technology does not need to make their life hell. For one creative dad, the internet has proven the catalyst for a tool to help youngsters deal with the problem.
A Sydney digital creative and father of three, Galvin Scott Davis, has taken the idea that the anonymity of technology encourages bullying and turned it on its head.
Davis's eight-year-old son, Carter, came to him for help after being bullied. Despite it being such a common problem, Davis couldn't find children's literature that dealt adequately with the topic.
"Bullying seems to be on the rise, especially with cyberbullying," Davis says. "There didn't seem to be many platforms children could access to be able to get the confidence to talk about it."
Davis, an experienced storyteller as both an app developer and a writer for film and TV in the US, took matters into his own hands, with plans for a short film about bullying. When this became too expensive, he decided to create an app instead.
The 40-year-old flew to the US to open a business there just so he could register the project on the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. The project was a success, raising more than $39,000 from 334 backers in 30 days. "We were very lucky," he says.
From this, Dandelion was born. The app (available for iPhone and iPad) aims to help children deal with bullying in its various forms. The story's protagonist, Benjamin Brewster, is something of an outsider and gets bullied at school. With no friends to turn to for help, he blows dandelions, which turn into creations that help him fend off the bullies. As the story says: "Bullying is for people with no imagination."
Rather than offering a definitive solution - as Davis notes, he is not a psychologist - the story attempts to offer a creative way to broach the subject of bullying.
"Bullying is happening to kids at increasingly early ages," Davis says. "That's why we wanted to create a story that spoke to very young kids."
Importantly, Benjamin has no face, so kids can use their imagination and put themselves in his shoes. The interactive element is also key, Davis says.
"It allows them to really get hands-on with the character and stop him from being bullied."
The app is due to be turned into an interactive e-book, with two others in the works. They will introduce a female protagonist and explore why bullies feel the need to pick on other children.
The principal child psychologist at Quirky Kid Clinic, Kimberley O'Brien, says in her 16 years of working with children, she has seen an increase in bullying, partly from the rise of cyberbullying.
A study by the Australian Catholic University in June of 700 Victorian school students from years 7 to 9 found 15 per cent admitted to being the perpetrators of cyberbullying. This was largely driven by the ever-increasing uptake of smartphones, according to the research.
A separate study by online security firm AVG, in November 2011, found cyberbullying of 10- to 13-year-olds in Australia was the highest in the world - tied with the US at 9 per cent - compared with a global average of 5 per cent.
"Children are online at such an early age that many have developed the technical maturity of adults by their tween years," says the security adviser for AVG, Michael McKinnon. "However, they have not developed the equivalent intellectual or emotional maturity necessary to make the right decisions in the many complex situations they face online."
But O'Brien says technology is not all bad when it comes to bullying, and educational apps are useful. "Kids are really engaged with iPads in the classroom," she says. "If it's educational and engaging, we're halfway there." McKinnon agrees. "Anything to get the message through is going to help," he says. The success of Dandelion seems to confirm this.
It quickly became the No.1 book app in the Australian iTunes store, and has been adopted by schools in Australia and the US. "The feedback from schools has just been incredible," Davis says. But, perhaps more importantly, the reception from his own sons, to whom the book is dedicated, has made it all worthwhile.
"They absolutely love it."
- Sydney Morning Herald
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