This is something we should all reflect on as anti-bullying week begins. If we asked ourselves those questions more frequently, Prince Harry might not have felt forced to issue a statement about the treatment of his girlfriend, Meghan Markle, on social media and in the tabloid press. Fewer women might have to put up with vile misogynist online abuse, including rape and death threats. Fewer celebrities might see themselves mauled online in sidebars of shame.
Cyberbullying can be particularly pernicious. Unrestricted to a particular location, it can be impossible to escape. The degree of anonymity afforded by the online world can embolden perpetrators to behave in ways they otherwise wouldn’t. Perpetrators rarely witness the emotional reaction of their victims, dampening any empathy they might feel. And things can go viral fast, with potentially unlimited reach. Cyberbullying may be perpetrated thoughtlessly, but with devastating consequences. Lucy Nesbitt-Comaskey, a woman who was in Nice during the terrorist attack in July, gave an interview to Sky News while she was still in shock and made the mistake of talking about her shopping. She was torn apart by the tabloid press and called “the most hated woman in England” on Twitter. Tim Hunt, a Nobel laureate who made an ill-judged joke widely deemed to be offensive about women working in science, was subjected to a vicious social media campaign and forced to resign from his honorary professorship at University College London as a result.
Cyberbullying is particularly pernicious when it comes to children, who lack the emotional resilience of adults. Children are increasingly inhabiting adult worlds online, with adult rules and few restrictions about what they can see and take part in. Most children have used at least one social network by the age of 10 and 52% of children age 8-16 have ignored Facebook’s official minimum age of 13.
Around one in four children have experienced some form of cyberbullying. These children are more likely to experience greater stress, anxiety, depression and loneliness, with one study suggesting the experience of being cyberbullied almost doubles the risk of children attempting suicide.
This is not an issue that comes with a ready-made solution. Because it is about social behavioral norms – what is and is not considered to be acceptable online – it is something that can only be tackled through collective action.
Parents often lack confidence in understanding how their children are using social media and need information and support in how to look for the warning signs their child is being bullied online. There should be more of a focus in the school curriculum on digital resilience – developing young people’s ability to deal with the risks they encounter online. Social media platforms could do much more to police their age restrictions meaningfully, ensure they have transparent, accessible and child-friendly systems for reporting online abuse and to positively promote support for those being cyberbullied.
But we need to go beyond protecting young people by educating them about online risk – we have a responsibility to teach children how to behave in a healthy and positive way online.
For example, cybersmarties.com is a social network designed exclusively for primary-school children in Ireland. Users are authenticated as real children via their school. The network is designed to teach positive online behaviour for life, focusing on self-esteem and empathy. If the tech industry were really taking its responsibilities in this area seriously, it would be investing in similar initiatives that do not just teach children how to react to cyberbullying, but do more to discourage it in the first place.
But there is perhaps little point in teaching children positive behaviour if, as adults, we are unwilling to model it ourselves. This is why Prince Harry is to be commended for speaking out against the harassment and bullying directed at Meghan Markle. We all have a responsibility to call out toxic bullying wherever it exists.
“Is it kind?” Out of respect to Felix Alexander and other victims who have lost their lives to bullying, we should endeavour to ask ourselves this question before we post anything online.
In 2017 I will begin to offer programs around Mental Health ~ 4 Teens and Women… after my book release “Your Life Matters”. Connect with me to learn more HERE