More than a million young people are subjected to extreme online bullying every day in Britain, according to the biggest survey of internet abuse.
The explosion of social networking sites means seven out of 10 13-22 year-olds have now been cyber-bullied, a survey by the national anti-bullying charity Ditch The Label has found.
The growing problem now affects an estimated 5.43 million young people, with girls and boys equally likely to be targeted. Facebook was the most common place for it to occur, with young people twice as likely to be bullied there than on any other social network. More than half of its users said they had been victimised on the site at some point, compared to 28 per cent of Twitter users and 26 per cent of those on Ask.fm.
More than 10,000 young people were asked about their experiences of abuse over the internet and asked to rate its severity. One in five said they experienced bullying every day at a level which they rated eight or more out of 10.
Liam Hackett, who founded the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label after being a victim of bullying himself, said: “Historically bullying went on in the classroom and it stopped when you got home, but now there’s no escape for young people.”
He added: “Cyber-bullying is seriously damaging the self-esteem and the future prospects of young people and is an issue we cannot afford to overlook. Social networks have a moral obligation and a duty of care to their users to implement tight mechanisms of flagging and reporting systems for cyber bullying, although we all have a responsibility and an opportunity to help fix this.”
The results follow the deaths of two teenagers over the summer who were bullied over the internet. Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old schoolgirl who was found hanged at her home in Lutterworth, Leicestershire, after apparently suffering months of internet abuse on social network Ask.fm.
Daniel Perry, 17, from Dunfermline, Fife, killed himself after footage recorded on Skype was used to blackmail him. Helen Goodman, shadow minister for Culture, Media and Sport, with a responsibility for media reform, said: “Cyber-bullying is a horrible new problem facing some of our teenagers. It is vital that adults, including companies and the Government, take responsibility for making sites safe.
She added: “We have repeatedly called on the Government to introduce legislation to deal with this epidemic of cyber-bullying, but David Cameron is failing to stand up to the internet giants. Over a million young people in the UK face extreme cyber-bullying each day and in recent weeks we have seen the tragic deaths of two young people as a result. How can there be a stronger call to action than that?”
Ditch The Label believes the Government needs to make social networks more thoroughly regulated to protect young people from further abuse.
Mr Hackett said: “There needs to be greater governance of social networks. Especially with the likes of Facebook and Twitter, we feel there should be greater legal obligation to do an annual external audit which would tell us how much abuse had been reported and what the response had been.” More than two thirds of those who completed the survey, which was circulated on the teenage social network website Habbo Hotel, were British. Of the rest, 4 per cent were Australian, 12 per cent were from the USA, and a small number were from elsewhere. The results give an indication of the global scale of the problem. Ian Rivers, a psychologist and professor of human development at Brunel University, said that better education was needed to deal with the problem. “If so many young people are experiencing this then there must be a degree of reciprocation. I think we need to teach ‘netiquette’ in schools because learning how to communicate with each other properly is a really important way to prevent bullying.”
The children’s counselling service ChildLine is appealing for more volunteers to help work on its online support team as it struggled to cope with the demand from distressed young people on the internet. Some 59 per cent of contacts from children are now online – rather than on the original phone line – and the charity says it needs more volunteers to man computers.
ChildLine carried out 4,507 counselling sessions with children and young people who were concerned about cyber-bullying in the year to 2013, an increase of 87 per cent in a year. The Government updated its bullying guidance to schools in July, so that teachers can have specific powers to confiscate mobile phones or other devices that might be used in cyber bullying.
Responding to the research, Facebook pointed out that all its users have access to reporting tools they can use to block others and report things that make them uncomfortable.
A spokesman for the website said: “We don’t tolerate bullying on Facebook and that’s why we provide the best tools and support in the industry for people to report bullying to us or to someone else who can help them.”
A Government spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has called for responsible behaviour from website owners. The Government expects all social media to have simple mechanisms for reporting abuse, to take actions promptly when abuse is reported and to make it easier for users to turn off anonymous posts.
“Through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety, the Government is challenging social networking sites to improve their reporting procedures and safety features.”
A Department for Education spokeswoman said: “The best people to help schools deal with bullying are the experts – that is why we have given almost £3m to Beatbullying, the Diana Award, Kidscape and the National Children’s Bureau to provide state-of-the-art anti-bullying – including cyber bullying – materials and support for schools.”
Case study: ‘The bullying made me extremely depressed. I tried to take my life’
Becky Owen, 22, from Honiton, Devon, was cyber-bullied as a teenager
I was around 14 when it started. I joined Bebo and I put up a picture of myself at a relative’s party. I thought ‘Oh I look nice in that, I’ll share it with friends’. A girl from school commented underneath and said ‘You look really ugly, you skanky bitch’. I didn’t realise I hadn’t adjusted the privacy setting and people from school who already bullied me started sending me messages saying I was a ‘dirty skank lesbian’ who needed to sort my life out.
“I was too scared of them to say anything, but I changed my privacy settings. That didn’t stop them though. Instead, they created fake profiles and added me on the site. I didn’t have many friends so I thought it would be nice to have a few new ones to talk to, but then it would turn out to be them.
“I was insecure about my sexuality and came out to someone I thought was my friend, but she told the girls who were bullying me and then they did it more. I told my head of year and the ringleader was suspended, but in the end I had to leave the school because the other girls were still being mean.
“It made me extremely depressed. I self-harmed and I attempted to take my life a couple of times. I still struggle with depression and now when I get a Facebook message, I still have a fear that it will be horrid. I’ve moved around the country a lot because since those bullying days I find it really hard to settle and trust people.”