Online bullying exposes children to dangers beyond the schoolyard


ANALYSIS:Cyberbullying happens in unsupervised spaces where normal social rules are suspended

THE TRAGIC death by suicide of 13-year-old Erin Gallagher in Donegal last weekend forces us, yet again, to question how we manage the complex issue of cyberbullying.

Bullying is fundamentally about exerting power and control and there will always be young people who want to deliberately hurt others because of their own personal unhappiness, jealousy or low self-esteem.

Research shows that boys tend to be more overtly physical in their bullying, whereas girls use more emotional and psychological bullying: snide comments, exclusion, undermining, etc.

Adolescent girls can be particularly vicious: they enjoy the immediate emotional response and they know how to hurt, in that they know how important appearances and being popular are for any teen, but psychologically they are too immature to appreciate fully the long-term impact of their actions.

Adult intervention is crucial in order to stop bullying. However, cyberbullying is taking place beyond the reach of adults in unsupervised places where normal social rules are suspended and children play out vicious witch-hunts without adult guidance.

Face-to-face bullying still goes on, and is deeply unpleasant, but somehow seems more manageable. Before texting and social networking sites existed, bullying was relatively predictable. Once identified there are strategies to deal with these situations and there is the possibility of resolution and moving on.

Cyberbullying doesn’t offer this containment or finality: there are too many people involved, the perpetrator can be anonymous and, even if the bullying is stopped, the comments remain forever in cyberspace.

Cyberspace creates a buffer between the bully and victim. The bully feels cocooned and removed from the situation, and does not feel the same level of responsibility and risk.

Cyberspace means that negative comments that might have previously been confined to a small group can now be commented on or supported by hundreds or thousands of strangers. The impact of the message on the victim gains strength in numbers, while the blame and responsibility for the comments is spread thinner.

As this technology is increasingly being used by our children, the bullying can become unrelenting and pervasive. Bullying can be 24 hours a day and children are being bullied as they sit alone in their bedrooms.

Furthermore, the text comment, unlike the face-to-face, doesn’t vanish. Years ago, a bullying campaign in school over a compromising photo of a friend was resolved when I took the negatives and cut them up.

Now the photo would be posted and re-sent within minutes. Images and words are indelible and are there to be to be added to and signed up to by others, or revisited at a low moment by the victim.

Where does a child get an emotional break from this, or the space and time to gain a sense of perspective on the situation?

It’s easy for an adult to suggest that all the victim has to do is tell someone or, even more simply, suspend their Facebook or Twitter account. It’s not that straightforward.

Secrecy is a key element of bullying in that the “pact” of secrecy between the victim and perpetrator is what allows it to continue. Teens often don’t report cyberbullying, or any bullying, either through fear or shame. They are too embarrassed to share what has been said with their parents, or maybe they weren’t supposed to be using the website in the first place. They don’t suspend their accounts because this is what everyone else is doing.

Even if they can’t stop the comments, they want to know what is being said about them, and, just as Erin Gallagher did in her final hours, attempt to defend themselves and save face.

We all agree that teaching children to be responsible on the internet is vital. But this needs to go alongside the fundamental learning of personal responsibility an ownership of all our actions from an early age.

If your child adds an “LOL” or a “like” to a mean comment, they need to know that they are potentially contributing to bullying.

In an age of instant messaging and thoughtless retweeting and re-sending, our children need to be taught the fundamental skills of taking the time to process information and make a judgment before responding.

Teenagers will always want secret places to feel separate from their parents but we need to provide them with the skills to make good and balanced moral judgments wherever they find themselves.

Dr SARAH O'DOHERTYis a clinical neuropsychologist and agony aunt with Kiss magazine.