Parents need to tackle cyber bullying, not just companies says research chief

A recent study published by the National Anti-Bullying Research Centre found less than 20 per cent of parents were monitoring the social media use of their children


The head of the National Anti-Bullying Research Centre has said a greater emphasis on parental responsibility is necessary to tackle cyber bullying, not just the regulation of internet companies.

Dr James O’Higgins Norman, associate professor of sociology at Dublin City University was reacting to new measures announced in the UK of a voluntary levy on companies such as Google and Facebook to help raise awareness on the issue.

The unspecified financial contribution would help fund the UK’s online safety strategy, designed to tackle bullying, abuse and other risks for children and vulnerable users.

Prime minister Theresa May has been critical of firms like Twitter, repeatedly calling on them to do more to stop the spread of extremist content and to help victims of abuse.

On Wednesday, digital minister Karen Bradley published proposals including the levy, a code of practice on removing intimidating or humiliating content from social media, and online safety classes in schools.

The move would initially be introduced on a voluntary basis, but the document said: “We may then seek to underpin this levy in legislation, to ensure the continued and reliable operation of the levy.”

There is currently no such strategy in Ireland, although some groundwork has been carried out.

However, despite the UK’s company-focused approach, Dr O’Higgins Norman said such regulation must come with greater education and a need to recognise the role of parents and guardians, ultimately responsible for smart-phone and internet access of their children.

A recent study published by the National Anti-Bullying Research Centre found less than 20 per cent of parents were monitoring the social media use of their children.

Dr O’Higgins Norman said steps were being taken on the issue by individual companies but on an ad hoc basis.

“There is a lot of received wisdom that has built up in the social media companies...that could be brought to together to build a good system that works. One of the problems is that nobody is talking to each other,” he said.

“I think [the idea of a voluntary levy] is a good thing but what happens if they don’t sign up to it? These companies tend to be worlds in their own right and they have their own codes.”

Some companies, for example Facebook, are credited with investing in child safety measures, including the reporting of concerning content. However, there are calls for a more coherent strategy at State level.

Responding to the UK move, Cliodhna O’Neill, director of policy at the ISPCC, said while some progress had been made in the area, more was required.

“We are slightly earlier in the conversation [than the UK]; we aren’t sure yet on what the companies are willing to do,” she said.

“For us the key thing is that this is not just a series of disjointed measures,” but rather a comprehensive strategy on child protection measures across Government departments.

Ms O’Neill said a report by the Law Reform Commission last year had gone some way to addressing vital legal steps required to tackle the issue of child safety online, but there was also a need to consider education, regulation and public awareness. A meeting of stakeholders, including child protection experts, is clearly required she stressed.

Fine Gael Senator Gabrielle McFadden, who has previously spoken about being a target of social media abuse, said she was unsure about a levy on companies but that they should be “obliged to take responsibility for the welfare of their users”.

“They should use their platforms to promote mental health campaigns and encourage their users, especially young people to promote positive mental health strategies,” she said.

Additional reporting: Reuters