The first day of the holidays used to be a moment of relief for the children whose faces didn’t fit at school. Away from playground bullies, they could be themselves without fear of ridicule or abuse, enjoying weeks of respite before heading back across the battle lines of the school gates in September.
The suicide of Leicestershire schoolgirl, Hannah Smith, 14, following a stream of abusive messages on ask.fm, is the latest bleak evidence that the internet has removed that safe haven for today’s pupils.
At least one in five children has now had an upsetting experience online, according to research by the children’s charity, the NSPCC. The survey of 11- to 16-year-olds found that the most common bad experiences for today’s children now are being bullied and trolled.
For parents, the rise of this near- invisible bullying – lurking anonymously in your child’s phone or computer – can seem almost impossible to prevent. At least in the playground one could hope for a supervising adult to intervene, but on the internet, where bullies often have no name, let alone a face, it is hard to know what to do about it.
Policing the internet has only become more complex for parents since the rise of smartphones and social media. Siobhan Freegard, founder of the parenting website Netmums, says: “In the beginning of the internet, it was all about installing parental software and that was the answer, but it’s more complicated now. While that might stop kids from seeing graphic images, it won’t stop bullying, because that can happen almost anywhere.”
The natural instinct of some parents can be to pull the plug on internet use entirely, but experts say this carries a risk of further bullying in the “real” world. As Freegard puts it: “If you unplug them, you’re unplugging them from their whole social scene. It’s like taking your child out of school if they’re being bullied – you’re then saying your child isn’t going to have the normal social life and friendships of their peers. Parents can feel powerless about internet bullying, but there are lots of things you can do if your child is being bullied – or is being a bully – online.”
According to the NSPCC, the first of these is the simplest but often forgotten: make sure you talk regularly to your child about what is and is not acceptable online. “The old advice was: if you’re being bullied just turn your computer off, but that doesn’t appreciate what children’s lives are like and the massive part that the internet plays in their lives,” says Claire Lilley, safer technology expert for the NSPCC. “If you make your child suddenly uninvolved, you risk making them the ‘freak child’ who’s not on a social network and could give more ammunition to bullies.
“If your child tells you they’re being bullied, you want to not have the kneejerk reaction of shutting everything down. Rather than a big sit-down chat, the main thing is having lots of small conversations about what posts are unacceptable and how to react to them. Restrictions [on internet access] might work for some children in some situations, but the key is to build respect, empathy and resilience.”
Amy-Louise Paul, 17, from Peterborough, has first-hand experience of how destructive the internet can be for a young teenager. When she was 13, she came home from a minor squabble with one of her school friends to discover they had set up a facebook group called “We hate Amy-Louise. For all those people who hoped she was dead already.”
She recalls: “I had been bullied on a face-to-face basis before but compared to that it was a lot bigger scale as the Facebook group was shared between people so that everyone in their friend’s list could see it and join in. Lots of people added their own encouragement and horrible comments.
“We went to the police to ask them to do something about it but they didn’t seem to understand the seriousness of what was happening and they didn’t know what to do about it. In the end, we had to ask the school to make the girl take it down in front of the headteacher because she refused to take it down when we asked her to.”
Even after the group was taken down, that wasn’t the end of it. “People were still talking about it so I couldn’t escape it,” she says. “It got to the point where I felt so low that I felt suicidal and I said to my mum ‘I don’t want to be here any more’. I think that really scared her and, as I was struggling to speak to my family, she encouraged me to contact ChildLine.”
Amy-Louise has since managed to rebuild her confidence – after telephone counselling sessions with the charity – and believes the sites themselves should take more responsibility: “I definitely think that social networking websites should do more to help victims of cyberbullying. They have no support systems, and it is extremely difficult to get offensive and harmful material taken down. Many social networking websites don’t understand what’s going on, and don’t understand how wrong things are. I think there needs to be some new laws brought in to protect children and young people.”
But why does bullying happen in the first place? What happens to a child to make them quite so vindictive? It is, according to Christine Pratt, founder of the National Bullying Helpline, a combination of factors. “Peer pressure and, recently, technology,” she says, “because technology provides a platform for people to emerge without emerging, if you see what I mean. This means that the individual can commit these horrible acts anonymously.” A child becomes a bully, Pratt explains, because they want to control someone, often due to an unacknowledged sense of competition. “It’s either because they lack something themselves, or feel that a particular individual is a potential threat to their own role.”
While parenting websites are full of posts from mums and dads worrying about what to do if their child is bullied online, there are far fewer from those who fear their offspring could be a bully themselves. Freegard says addressing this issue is crucial: “We have this sense that the other kids are the evil bastards and our own are little angels, but mostly kids have the same traits of wanting to fit in and be liked.” She thinks parents should be just as vigilant in teaching their kids not to bully online as they are in checking that they are not falling victim to abuse.
If you do find your out your son or daughter has been cruel online, she says to deal with it in the same way as if they had said it aloud. “I’d do the traditional Irish mother bit - I’d name and shame them and drag them around to that person’s house so they knocked on the door and apologised. It’s about showing them the consequences and how strongly you feel about it.”
The NSPCC similarly believes that showing consequences of mean comments and building empathy is crucial to making sure your child does not become one of the bullies. Lilley says: “Adults and children will say things online that they would never dream of saying out loud. Try to get [your child] to say what they’ve written out loud while looking in a mirror. It’s about trying to get them to empathise.”
The Cybersmile Foundation was set up three years ago by Scott Freeman after his daughter was bullied on Facebook “to the brink of suicide”. He believes, like 17-year-old Amy-Louise, that the problem is too big to be solved by parenting and that websites should take control of online abuse.
“At the moment, anyone can say whatever they like online as long as there is not a credible threat,” he says. “In other words, you can be as abusive as you want. I’m a strong believer in freedom of speech, but there is a line, and the people crossing that line are ruining it for everyone else. They are ruining lives.”