Equip our young to protect against cyber bullying – my column in the Echo

6th October 2015 - Deirdre Clune MEP

There is no doubting the power and the value of social media and the amazing opportunity it gives us to connect socially with family, friends and colleagues. It provides us with a way to keep in touch with breaking news on a world wide platform in real time. The role social media played in the Arab Spring and other political movements is widely acknowledged, it is a highly influential tool with the power to spread messages to millions of viewers, clickers and watchers. The internet has also permeated into our daily and mundane life, if you want to get a score by score account of a local football match, you don’t have to switch on the TV anymore. All you have to do is follow your twitter feeds. Everybody has access to a smart phone, tablet or PC and this enables people to publish their views, their comments or any image they choose onto a social media platform. This nugget of information can potentially reach millions of people. The material, whether it is positive or negative can go viral within seconds and then there is very little an individual can do to stop it. This is a powerful medium and can be extremely positive for people’s lives but sadly as we have seen on numerous occasions, social media sites can be dangerous if they are not treated with respect and caution.

Last week yet another social media scandal was splashed across the headlines in newspapers and on online media. The photographs of a young girl and boy engaged in a sexual act in public at Slane were taken and published without of any of the individual’s consent. The images spread like wild fire and were all over the internet on sites like Twitter and Facebook.  Last year pictures and videos of young schoolgirls brawling in their school uniforms were posted online which caused similar outrage among the general public. They were taken down but not before they appeared in our media, accessible at the click of a mouse. In another incident, multiple students were suspended from a school inLimerickdue to their activity on Facebook. Unfortunately these examples are only a small selection of the how people can be ridiculed and bullied on social networking sites.  These incidents can have a devastating effect on a young person’s confidence and self esteem. Not to mention the fact that once these images are published, they are, in a lot of cases accessible forever online. This can have many ripple effects for the rest of a young person’s life, for example when searching for employment.

Posting an image online without an individual’s consent is classed as a form of cyber bullying. Not all young people are ignorant when it comes to the safe usage of social media platforms but clearly some are blissfully unaware of the potential consequences. Or it is possible that some young people simply do not care. Unfortunately for victims and their families it is traumatic and painful lesson which many have had to learn from.

It is my view that we need to include a mechanism to tackle this in our education system. Young people need to be educated on awareness concerning social media and how to behave responsibly and appropriately when using it. A recent report on social media published by the Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications recommended that more emphasis be placed on educating parents, teachers and children on how to safely use social media. The committee envisaged that  peer to peer learning whereby children might mentor their peers should be explored and that the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) curriculum should be revised to incorporate responsible use of social media. The SPHE programme supports the personal development, health and well being of young people and helps them to create and maintain supportive relationships. I think it is a very appropriate area within which to approach safe use of social media particularly as it is taught to students in the Junior Cycle. The age bracket of this cycle is 12 to 16 years, 12 is an ideal time to begin teaching these life lessons as it is a transition stage in a young person’s life.

During the research for the Committee’s report, Google cited the example of the Beat Bullying charity in theUK. This is a cyber mentoring scheme where young people mentor their peers online to try and promote a community of safety online. Teenagers will take it much more seriously if the appropriate people of a similar age educate and inform them. It is less daunting to turn to their peers with a question or problem than approaching a parent or a teacher.

Interestingly a recent report written by Dublin Institute of Technology researcher Brian O’Neill entitled ‘Cyberbullying among 9-16 year olds in Ireland’ also recommended “continuing professional development for teachers and new resources to support the implementation of the personal safety aspects of the Social Personal and Health Education curriculum “

These reports are the first attempt to examine the impact of cyberbullying on young people inIreland.  The statistics state that 26 per cent of 9-16 year old said that cyberbullying made them “very upset” with a similar amount saying they were “fairly upset” by online bullying. The report found that 28 per cent of those surveyed tried to fix the problem themselves, 25 per cent ignored the issue in the hope that it would go away and tellingly only 15 per cent used internet reporting tools to combat the problem. Crucially, the report also found that for children who had been bullied online, only 68 per cent of their parents were unaware of the issue. These statistics give us some insight into the difficult and challenging world our young people are living in and how they are sometimes reluctant to reach out for help.

Marion Flanagan an anti bullying tutor from Trinity College Dublin, she states that children as young as 8 are beginning to experience bullying via text and online messages. Therefore where possible, parents and teachers need to be open and honest with children to help them understand social media, a child of this age in my view needs to be monitored closely while using the internet. However I am aware that we cannot watch over our children 24/7.

A recently published Irish study by Machold et al looked at social media usage by Irish teenagers and found that Facebook at 95 percent is the most commonly used platform followed by Bebo at 65 percent and twitter at 33 percent. The report also found that 61 per cent of teenagers are never supervised by their parents while on social media.

The phenomenon of the internet age and social media is upon us.  How we equip our children to interact with it is a challenge which faces both parents and society as a whole. We all need to acknowledge that social media should have a responsibility to facilitate communicating positively and not be used as a medium for bullying and harassing others. If you saw someone being bullied or harassed on the street would you ignore the situation or would you act responsibly?

It is important to consider that cyber bullying could have serious legal repercussions. In all reported cases of young people being bullied or harassed online the Gardai have become somewhat involved.  I suspect that many young people are unaware of potential legal charges which could be made against them. Any person who creates or shares defamatory material which is then published on the internet leaves themselves open to prosecution. Defamation may also occur in cases where an offensive remark is retweeted. In May of this year the High Court heard the case of a man who was wrongly identified in a video posted on YouTube, the video was widely circulated and the judge described the online insults directed at the man as “a miscellany of the most vile, crude, obscene and generally obnoxious comments”. These are strong words which accurately depict the harsh reality of the online world today. In response to these very real threats, we need to equip our young people to protect themselves. In my view, the only way this can be achieved is through knowledge.

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