How parents can help stamp out cyber-bullying

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The Independent Online

It is right for all of us to review the internet safety advice we give to children as education enters its second decade of online exposure. In an age where young people are freely giving out personal information and have learned the rules of being careful in talking to strangers, it's time to turn our attention to the reality that children are more likely to be involved in cyber- bullying and harassing each other than they are being in touch with a stranger.

Reminding children to keep their personal information private is still important, especially with the growing threat of identity theft, but helping children draw up and keep to clear boundaries in online conversations is crucial to helping them stay safe. More than ever, we need to remind children about the consequences of their online actions and help them retain empathy and care for those who they connect with in their online world.

"It was staggering, we never imagined a group of kids could be so cruel to one of their own classmates. The ganging-up was beyond belief - we just didn't know quite what to do."

These were the words of a headteacher who recounted a particularly malicious episode in his school to me at Childnet. Every single member of a class had been involved in sending an abusive text message to a student. "The behaviour was so out of character for many of the students. It's as if they weren't thinking and felt they had to join in because that was what was expected. It was only a prank, a bit of fun," he said.

Hiding behind the glass and electronics of their personal computer or mobile phone, so many children now seem to perceive themselves to be anonymous and untouchable - connected in a sense, yes, but strangely disconnected from the consequences of inappropriate actions and often feeling little or no empathy with the victim in question.

What is peculiar about cyber--bullying is how the bystander can get caught up in the activities and become an accessory to the abuse. Here in England, research carried out for the Anti-Bullying Alliance (ABA), found that 22 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds had been a victim of cyber- bullying.

Childnet has been working with the education ministry in drawing up guidance for schools on how to respond to cyber- bullying. They have produced a new film aimed at the bystander, reminding them that if they "laugh at it [they are] part of it". Over the autumn, they will be running national conferences with the Government and developing guidance and resources that help schools to both respond to and prevent cyber--bullying in the first place. However, helping schools is only one part of the answer and supporting Parents is crucial. ConnectSafely.org is one of many websites that aims to puts parents in touch with each other and helps them know how to talk to their kids about their online behaviour.

Teaching children about empathy isn't easy; it's not something you can simply download or install on your computer and sit them in front of. Similarly, it is not a separate tutorial which you can teach and test in the classroom. It is something that is often learnt through pain and mistakes, years of being honest with your children and bringing care and love into every part of our lives. It's something that parents need to learn in the first place and, as a result actively demonstrate to their children.

Stephen Carrick-Davies is the chief executive officer of Childnet International

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