At a time of rising concern over the effects of cyberbullying, new proposals by the Government's special rapporteur on child protection to criminalise this kind of abusive behaviour are a welcome step in the right direction. Research suggests almost one in five secondary school students have felt bullied or abused online. But pupils, parents and teachers often feel powerless to tackle the problem. Legal difficulties in proving harassment on social networking websites mean there have been relatively few prosecutions to date. The report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon recommends amending existing laws used to combat harassment – the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act – to provide for a specific offence of cyberbullying. Significantly, it also proposes that homophobic bullying in schools should be classified as a child protection issue. This would require schools to address these issues and report them to social services, if necessary.
While new laws are welcome, on their own they do not represent a solution to the problem. Social networking has not created bullying behaviour. It has simply amplified a persistent problem that has never been adequately tackled by most school authorities. As a result, bullying tends to be either tolerated in schools or dealt with through crisis-management, after long-term damage has been done. Research shows that a whole-school approach is the most effective way of dealing with these issues. This requires involving the entire school – teachers, administrators, students and parents – in teaching young people how to change attitudes and behaviours. Children and teens need to know how to deal effectively with bullying, and these skills can be taught in settings where bullying is most likely to occur. We have official guidelines to promote this kind of activity, but they need to be made mandatory.
All children should be able to fulfil their potential free from the damage that bullying causes. Legal reform is part of the solution, but wider and more comprehensive steps are necessary.