What is the best intervention for this increasingly common social phenomenon?
CYBER bullying is a form of bullying carried out through Internet services such as email, chat rooms or web pages or via mobile phone technologies.
It is becoming increasingly common, is distressing to the victim and can be very dangerous.
According to research undertaken by the NSW Department of Education and Training (2007) on the prevalence of cyber bullying, more than two-thirds of adolescents have attempted to conceal non-essential Internet use from parents; one in four have been bullied or harassed online; 17% have used the ‘report’ button on MySpace; and more than half did not know how to seek help.
There are many ways in which someone can harass another person using the Internet, email or phone, including sending unwanted messages to torment, upset or threaten them; posting a picture or information that is offensive, defamatory or embarrassing; twisting what the person writes in chat rooms; spreading rumours or excluding them from chatting; logging onto an online forum as someone else and causing mischief.
Cyber stalking or harassment is also a worrying trend that generally involves following a person’s movements across the Internet, visiting the same chat rooms, leaving messages on message boards and sometimes persuading a third party to harass the victim.
We can encourage and support parents and teenagers to follow some simple rules when chatting online. The following advice is provided to high school students by the NSW Police:
- Don’t give out your last name, phone number (home or mobile), private email address, home address, school name, sporting locations you attend or parents’ work location.
- Always be careful when entering information into a blog (it doesn’t take too much to give your identity away); always check your chat profile to make sure it doesn’t include any personal information.
- Never email a picture of yourself to strangers or put a picture of yourself on your chat profile; never activate your webcam to persons you do not know in person or have just met on the Internet; never show yourself naked on webcam or in photos.
- Don’t open up emails, files or webpages that you get from people you don’t really know or trust; never give out your password, except to responsible adults in your family; don’t use a handle or nickname that may attract the wrong attention, e.g. ‘sweet_teen’, ‘sexy_girl’
- Remember, how people are in real life can be very different from how they are online – someone claiming to be a 15-year-old boy may be a 50-year-old man.
Although cyber bullying generally occurs outside the school environment, schools are increasingly affected and therefore instituting a range of appropriate actions.
The single most effective intervention, as with the more traditional types of bullying, is having a ‘whole school policy’ that spells out exactly how the problem is to be tackled.
Schools can raise awareness and understanding by providing professional development for teachers, education sessions for parents and, ideally, frank discussions that involve teachers, parents and students.
There are also curriculum-based measures (for example, ‘values education’, use of stories and drama) and social programs (such as peer mentoring and transition support) that can make a difference.
As clinicians, we all need to be aware of the hazards integral to the use of media technologies – not just screen time with links to obesity, sleep disorders and exposure to risky behaviours, but the possibilities of cyber bullying, especially among our teenage patients.
Dr Susan Towns, FRACP, is head of adolescent medicine at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, NSW.