Growing up is never easy – especially for kids today, who are often having to do it whilst watching and being watched by the whole world, all the time. I wrote my new book for children as a guide to the online environment: how to navigate it safely, what the risks of being on social media are, and what to do if aspects of it give rise to problems. People can behave very differently when they are communicating via a screen, and in an unexpected manner. The more you, as teachers, know about how your students are interacting online, the better equipped you’ll be to help them to stay safe and happy in their lives, both on- and offline.
What are we talking about?
Cyberbullying is the use of digital platforms to exclude, threaten, harass or embarrass somebody.
There really is a wealth of ways in which this can happen. For example, Snapchat. A lot of parents, teachers and kids think that Snapchat conversations are completely private. But they’re not. The conversations can be screenshotted and shared, the images being sent round at school and/or online. This is a complete violation of trust and friendship so can be incredibly upsetting for the victim. Instagram is another example – a 2017 study undertaken by the anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label showed that 7% of young people said they have been bullied on the app. I’m not on Instagram because I don’t like the idea of posting pictures and comparing your life against someone else’s. For me this triggers many of my own issues and insecurities.
Trolling is another issue. A troll is someone who posts nasty things (could be comments or photos) on social media accounts (even sometimes hacking other peoples’ accounts and posting as them) purely to cause upset or provoke arguments. Social media is great when friendships are working well, but it can make an individual feel very isolated and alone if they are being targeted in unkind or abusive ways. And of course trolls can attack by text and email too – it’s not just social media where a pupil may be targeted.
And then there’s the relatively recent development that is doxing. This is when someone finds out personal information about someone else – such as their real name, date of birth, phone number, address or pictures – and publishes it online to do them harm. But this is not a crime; unfortunately, if the information gathered by the doxer is freely available and they are not using this information to blackmail an individual, then doxing is not illegal. This is where parents and teachers really need to encourage young people to keep personal information private.
How can we help?
Encourage pupils to take a screenshot of bullying behaviour when they see it online, whether it’s targeting them, or someone else. This can be used as evidence if the situation grows to the extent where it needs to be reported to the authorities. Keeping a log of cyberbullying behaviours is also helpful – for you, and your students.
Bullying should be reported both on the social media platform being used and, if you’re worried for a student’s safety or mental health, to their parents. But tempting as it is, discourage young people from calling out bullying behaviour in an open forum. This could make matters trickier and even make them a target.
Support each other
Encouraging children to look for help offline is a way of combating cyberbullying. Friends can send each other supportive messages and offer a friendly ear in real life. Bullying can make people feel alone. Letting the victim know that people have seen what is happening to them and don’t think it’s right will do a lot to make them feel less isolated. Encourage your students to talk to a friend and to adults about what is happening. Bullying is never deserved and it’s never okay. Let’s get kids speaking out, and gathering real-life support.
Sympathise rather than solve
When a student is ready to talk, really listen to what they’re saying. Don’t immediately try to fix it, offer explanations or compare it to situations that have happened in your own life. Ask questions such as: ‘How does this make you feel?’, ‘How often does this happen?’, ‘What would you like to be done about it?’
Teach about digital footprints
It’s really important to remind young people that everything they post online, every email they send, the websites they visit – this info is all permanent. Encourage them to try and keep a clean slate, by deleting any tags or comments on their posts that they don’t like, and really thinking ahead about whether something they post or send could be considered offensive, even if that isn’t the intention.
All social media accounts should be kept private. Everyone (not just young people!) should investigate the privacy settings on their accounts and set them so that only trusted people can see them. Passwords should never be given out to anyone except parents. And block, block, block: if someone is behaving in a way a child doesn’t like, or always disrupting their posts, or tagging them in things they don’t want to be tagged in, these bullies should be blocked.
Be ready to find help
It’s great when a student trusts you and is ready to open up to you, but it can be overwhelming. If you are worried your pupil is in danger or are concerned that this is affecting their behaviour and mental health, reach out. A member of the SLT should be able to offer you guidance on how to deal with the problem, and there are many external organisations that can help point to support and solutions (see panel).
And of course the flipside. There’s the student who doesn’t realise that what they’re doing is cyberbullying – they probably think that they’ve sent a friend a joke and haven’t realised that person is really offended and/or upset by what has been said. The only solution to this is education – getting the kids comfortable talking about how they live their online lives and creating awareness for them to understand that their actions in real life and online have consequences. The sooner they can own their behaviours and learn to listen to the concerns of others, then the better they’ll be able to make amends and behave acceptably online.
5 useful organisations
Child Exploitation and Online Protection Command (CEOP)
If you are worried about online abuse or the way someone has been communicating online, make a report to CEOP. ceop.police.uk/safety-centre
Ditch the label
Check out Ditch the Label for help and advice on bullying and cyberbullying. ditchthelabel.org
This is a mental health charity, with tons of useful information online. mind.org.uk
Use this website to find a contact number for your neighbourhood police team. police.uk
A charity helping young people to improve their mental health. youngminds.org.uk
About the author
Dr Christian Jessen is a doctor, television presenter, and author. His lastest book, Dr Christian’s Guide to Growing Up Online is out now (published by Scholastic).