Lucy Hone: Parents, be wary of cyber bullies

The digital age offers vast opportunities for children, but what are the facts when it comes to inappropriate behaviour ...
ALDEN WILLIAMS

The digital age offers vast opportunities for children, but what are the facts when it comes to inappropriate behaviour and online bullying? Dr Lucy Hone reports.

I am frequently privy to social media horror stories – they come with the territory of being a parent and working in schools in the digital age. Most parents will have experience, or at least heard tales, of 10-year-olds caught peeking at porn pages, of the pressures of early teen sexting and, most recently, of cyber stalking courtesy of Snapchat's new Snap Map feature (if you don't know about this and have teenage children, Google it now).

Some instances make it to the media; most are kept quiet by children fearful of losing their phones or swept under the carpet by schools understandably desperate to stay out of the headlines. It may not necessarily be their domain, but mopping up the devastation caused by social media is fast becoming a full-time job for anyone involved in pastoral care at intermediate and secondary schools.

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GIVE ME THE FACTS

At a conference in London a few months back, I was fascinated to listen to Masa Popovac, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Buckingham. I wanted to flesh out the chilling anecdotes I'd heard with some hard facts and figures and Popovac has been doing just that. In a recent study, she found 69 per cent of 12- to 18-year-olds in England had been victims of cyberbullying – defined as an aggressive, intentional act, carried out repeatedly and over time, against a victim who cannot easily defend themselves. Note the three definitive elements: intentionality, repetition and a power imbalance.

Over half of the participants in Popovac's study had had pictures posted that embarrassed them. Slightly less than half had endured rumours or gossip spread about them online and 44 per cent had received messages they believed were coming from one person but later found out they were written by someone else.

Almost a third had had private messages forwarded (shared or posted so others could see them) and approximately one in five had been impersonated through a fake profile, or by someone gaining access to their account and posting without their permission. One in four teenagers didn't want to go to school because of something said or done online.

Cyberbullying is a harsh fact of everyday life for the vast majority of our kids, and, while reliable stats are hard to come by, the general thinking is that it peaks among 11- to 14-year-olds, so don't think your Year Seven child is immune.

LURED BY OPPORTUNITIES, NAIVE TO THE RISKS

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Lured by the benefits and opportunities digital technology offered – cross-cultural interactions, educational resources and academic support with far greater reach – we could never have anticipated the associated risks. One schoolteacher recently described her dismay on discovering the Year Fives and Sixes in her classroom crowded over an iPad showing graphic pictures of the Manchester bombing the morning after the event.

Even if these students' parents had managed to limit their media intake while at home, the presence of iPads in the classroom meant the horrific images were shared between these nine and 10-year-olds before classes had begun (and the astonished teacher had the chance to intervene). It is time to acknowledge that the proliferation of digital technology is profoundly and negatively affecting our children's lives, and, that currently we are doing very little about it.

Schools are failing to keep up, and dealing with the ongoing ramifications takes up far too much of their time. We cannot make it their responsibility alone. While I accept that the horse has bolted, we now need a serious national discussion about the omnipresence of digital technology and the perils it raises for children at an increasingly young age.

As Popovac says: "Restricting children from technology is not effective." So next week's column will cover some practical suggestions as to what can be done – both at home and at school. We're all in this together, after all.

 - Sunday Magazine

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