Education the solution to cyberbullying scourge

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 00:00

OPINION:Children must be taught that their online activities and behaviours carry concomitant responsibilities

THE TRAGIC recent deaths of teenagers Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley has once again thrust the spotlight on the problem of bullying – or, more specifically, on its digital counterpart, cyberbullying.

According to a recent report by EU Kids Online, 6 per cent of 9- to 16-year-old internet users report having been bullied online, and 3 per cent confess to having bullied others.

Cyberbullying is one of a number of terms used to describe the misuse of information and communications technology (ICT) to harass, intimidate, pester and embarrass others.

Today, cyberbullies have a vast technological arsenal at their disposal including mobile phones, email, instant messaging, chatrooms, blogs, bulletin boards and social networking sites.

Cyberbullying differs from its schoolyard counterpart in a number of ways:

some online forums (such as ask.fm) permit users to operate under a cloak of anonymity, thus making cyberbullying a much more insidious form of bullying;

perpetrators are not subject to the constraints of time and place and, as a result, cyberbullying is a particularly ceaseless and intrusive form of bullying;

online forums allow users to act impulsively and instantaneously without pause for reflection and, as perpetrators need not be physically proximate to their victims, they may experience a level of detachment, lacking any real sense of accountability;

online forums offer cyberbullies the opportunity to reach a sizeable, potentially global, audience and to formulate electronic cliques of like-minded individuals with relative ease and expedience.

Amid calls for some form of legislative intervention in the wake of the deaths of Erin and Ciara, it is important to step back and take stock of the reality of the situation. The internet and associated technologies are so embedded in the lives of our children that education must take priority over legislation. The argument is not that the law has no role to play but rather that its role must be subordinate to that played by education.

Given that children are going online at ever younger ages and internet use is becoming increasingly more privatised, it is crucial that children are empowered, through education, to self-govern – to use online technologies in a safe and responsible manner. The emphasis must be placed on empowerment and responsible participation rather than on restriction or prohibition.

The importance of education, more specifically the importance of media literacy in this context, cannot be overemphasised. Media literacy involves strengthening children’s critical and expressive abilities through theoretical knowledge and practical experience. It is closely related to concepts of empowerment and participation, both of which are enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as increasingly advocated at EU level in the media context.

Notions of self-protection and self-responsibility lie at the heart of media literacy. Arguably, these notions may not sit comfortably with those who conceptualise children as vulnerable beings in need of parental and State protection. It is, therefore, important that the protective function, as well as the participatory function of media literacy, is emphasised.

When it comes to child protection in the online environment, it is important that children be perceived both as possible victims and as potential perpetrators of risk activities and behaviours. As part of the educative process, children must be taught that their online activities and behaviours carry concomitant responsibilities. In the same vein, children must be taught that their online exploits are, in certain circumstances, capable of falling foul of the law.

The challenge is to empower children to manage this risk while ensuring children’s participation in the information technology environment is not impeded by the creation of a climate of fear. Cyberbullying is not a school issue – it is a societal issue. While it is reasonable to expect school authorities to manage incidences of bullying and cyberbullying that take place while children are under the care of the school, it is not reasonable to similarly expect school authorities to manage those incidences that take place when children are no longer the responsibility of the school.

Despite this, teachers and other educators are charged with primary responsibility for the delivery of digital skills and e-safety education and, in order that they may carry out this role, the State must ensure that educators are adequately resourced and supported.

Parents, too, have a crucial role to play. It is not only children who require education in order to become safe and responsible users of the technology. Parents must also be systematically educated in order that they are in a position to both supervise and support their children’s online activities and experiences. Just as children are empowered through education, so too are parents.

Sites like ask.fmwill always exist. The problem is not the sites themselves but the way in which they are misused. Children must be made aware of the potentially devastating consequences of such misuse – the only way to do this is through education.

It is time to take media literacy seriously.


Dr SHARON McLAUGHLINis a lecturer in law at Letterkenny Institute of Technology. Her PhD, completed in 2010 at the school of law at NUI Galway and funded by the Irish Research Council, examined child protection in the online environment. She is a member of EU Kids Online network.

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