Since the time of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, we’ve been aware of bullying as a fact of life in schools. For many years it was something that happened in person, at the schoolyard or on the way home. Bullying is still very much around; incidents are reported monthly in the press, ranging from criticism in schools to assault and even murder. Bullying may cause depression, or worse, it can trigger teenage suicide.
However, in the 21st century bullying has become a virtual as well as physical threat due to the widespread use of instant messaging and mobile phone text messaging among the young. It’s a problem that is quite international (although in comparison to other countries, in the US cyber bullying has been less problematic). Yet in many parts of the globe they’ve been forced to search for solutions to the rapidly increasing problem of cyber bullying.
Cyber bullying is indicative of the cultural shift that has happened all over the world, where teens spend the majority of their time either on computers or on mobile phones. The obvious physical signs that once accompanied bullying aren’t there any more. What remains is far more insidious and harder to identify.
How big of a problem is cyber bullying? A recent survey indicated that at least 15 per cent of children have received threatening messages online or on their phones, the majority of those bullied being girls. Another survey puts the figure as high as 25 per cent for text message bullying. These figures are disquieting, not only because of their sheer size, but because the messages strike outside of school, onto the phones and PCs of kids (the main tools of communication they use). It’s seeping into the heart and home, and it’s something that can be done reasonably anonymously, sometimes with devastating results. Tech-savvy bullies (and there are quite a few) can easily set up a website denigrating and degrading another kid. An embarrassing picture snapped on a camera phone can find its way across the web in mere seconds. In both instances the people involved are set up to be ridiculed by millions of people.
The sites are usually created in one of the many free spaces now available and might defy ISP rules, but as parents have found in the past, contacting the ISP and requesting removal often brings no response. In Canada at least, ISPs have declared that they’re not censors` (which gets into the whole free speech issue). The police will often refuse to become involved, and the schools will stay out of it unless there’s evidence the site was created using a school computer. Interestingly, when this type of website was created in Louisiana, authorities acted on a complaint, arrested the three students who set it up, confiscated their computers, and threatened them with expulsion and a $2000 fine.
So what can be done about cyber bullying? There are a few obvious steps, such as being wary of giving out e-mail addresses and instant messenger screen names. Sites like Cyber Bullying and Bullying Online deal with basic safety ideas. If a screen name or e-mail address is discovered by bullies, use filtering and blocking to stop the undesired messages. This eliminates the intrusion, but obviously not the bullying intent. However, checking the headers on an e-mail can determine its origin. Threatening e-mails constitute harassment, and that can be taken to the police much more easily than a web site (believe it or not).
Both AOL and Yahoo offer parental controls for Instant Messaging, and Microsoft has a “content advisor.” They’re all excellent ideas that allow parents to monitor and control how their children are using the Internet. Although if those kids are teenagers they will strongly oppose such restrictions, and many of them will be able to find their way around them. For younger kids, however, there is plenty of software available to help keep them within the bounds of safety.
It is fairly simple to obtain an anonymous web-based e-mail address and put up a website, therefore the risk online bullies run tends to be relatively small. Given the number of sites that allow you to send free SMS messages, this is also true for text bullying. It’s certainly worth considering that most kids have mobile phones these days, and tend to use them regularly from the age of eight or nine. As phones have become more complex they’ve become true communication centers for many, allowing not only calls and texts, but web access, instant messaging, and mp3s and videos – one stop shopping for many of their needs. In many ways, your phone becomes your life.
The problem of text bullying can be worse than online bully. You can block e-mails and user names online, and everything is static on the computer. The phone travels with you; texts are received instantly, not just when you log on. It’s more pervasive and intrusive, a much deeper violation. Sites like Stop Text Bully try to address the problem. But there are limits to what advice alone can do.
Obviously, blocking the number of a bully is one answer, but for a long time that’s been impossible. Now, however, there’s a service in the UK that allows just that. Intelligent SMS Centre lets kids who received bully texts log the number of the sender with their mobile operator. Future texts from that number will then be blocked. It’s quite similar to anti-spam software (and, indeed, will be used to block text spammers). Sicap, which offers the service, even claims it can be used to block texts sent from web sites, once properly instructed.
A British company has come up with another solution. Hotxt offers a service that lets users have a personal tag or user ID, which gives them both the ability to hide their real identity and also block people sending texts. Their system, which is downloaded to the mobile phone, also allows for longer SMS messages at a very cheap rate, with free signup and a small weekly fee. Additionally, the company has promised that part of their profits will go to a center that helps bullied kids.
In New Zealand, Vodafone and NetSafe have united to raise awareness about text bullying. Their main response was to offer NetSafe as a safe place for those bullied to call and talk about the incidents. Vodafone would then cancel the accounts of those caught inappropriately test messaging.
Of course, no one is touting these as perfect solutions to the problem. With pay as you go and texting from web sites it’s all too easy for any serious bully to avoid a ban – although it would take a fair amount of work.
What all this proves is that there is at least a strong international awareness of the problem of cyber bullying. It’s a very modern problem, and one which will require imaginative answers. So far, it seems, computers and mobile phones have largely exacerbated the problem of bullying at school. But in at least one instance mobile phones have become a tool to try and stop bullying.
A company called Mtrack has developed a tool called Pingalert, which can send an immediate message to parents from the mobile phone of a child who’s being physically threatened and bullied. It utilizes a special speed dial key for this. But not only does it send the alert, it can locate the sender’s phone to within about a quarter of a mile. It runs £39.95 (around $70) per year or £7 setup plus £2.95 per month (approx $12 and $5), but it also allows parents to track their children through their mobile phones. Sending a text message to the company will, within 60 seconds, bring up a text with a map displaying the sender’s location (assuming the phone is WAP and GPRS-enabled), undoubtedly a very useful tool. It is interesting to see new technology used to market a way to report and hopefully eliminate physical bullying (and offering an entirely different perspective to the slant of this piece)!
Anything that works toward eliminating bullying is of help. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, only 18 per cent of online harassment is ever reported. Do you know what your kids are talking about, or what’s being said to them? If you’re a normal parent, you probably don’t. What’s stressed, above all, is talking to your children, keeping an open avenue of communication so they can come to you if cyber bullying occurs. If they do, find out if your state has a stalking or harassment bill, and if so, don’t be afraid to contact the proper authorities. Legally, that’s the best you can do in the U.S., as there are no federal cyber bullying laws. Keep your eyes and ears open. If you’re seriously worried, install software that lets you keep tabs on what your kids are doing online (obviously, you can’t do anything similar for their phone). It might not seem fair, but it’s better than the worst alternatives.
Cyber bullying is a problem that did not creep up on us, but rather, swept us away. As technology will not disappear, neither will cyber bullying. All of the protective software in the world will not alter the cruelty and fear in the young. As parents, all you can do is be aware of the problem; and be ready to listen and help.
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