From trolling to suicide websites, the internet threat to young people is very real and growing all the time. In the first of two features, Rod McPhee looks at cyber bullying, its effects on children and how it can be combatted.
MIKE Bush is an academic and former social worker who has spent the past five years monitoring the growth of cyber bullying in a bid to keep vulnerable youngsters safe from harm.
But despite scouring the web and discovering numerous disturbing sites, pages and forums, he has never seen anything worse than the Leeds ‘Dirty Secrets’ pages which, up until two days ago, were up and running and making the lives of its young victims a complete misery.
“They are absolutely obnoxious,” said Mike of Calverley, Leeds.
“Unfortunately it’s very prevalent in our society now and these pages are pretty typical of the sort of stuff that’s out there online.
“It represents complete disrespect for a human being and the level of humiliation it creates does lead people to become depressed or take their own lives.
“The internet really warps bullying. Bullying has always happened, but with the web it’s on a whole different scale and is difficult to stop. But we really do have to try and stop it now.
“I think there is now a huge onus on the likes of Facebook and internet providers to really clamp down on this kind of abuse.”
The Leeds ‘Dirty Secrets’ pages on Facebook saw schoolchildren, sometimes at specific schools, named and shamed, often with racist, homophobic or sexually explicit gossip. Some even include naked photos of victims.
One Leeds mother found a post which falsely claimed her daughter had performed a sex act with two boys.
She said: “I felt utterly disgusted. It’s just malicious bullying by young people who want to look cool or clever but it’s just sad and sickening.
“What’s particularly bad is that it actively encourages bullying and because this site is on Facebook people looking at it might think: ‘Well, if they let it be up there then the contents can’t be wrong’. And that’s particularly worrying because things like Facebook and Twitter are now a part of every teenager’s life, you can’t avoid it.”
The five offending pages – which specifically named two schools, Ralph Thoresby in Cookridge and Cardinal Heenan Catholic High in Meanwood – have now been removed by the social media giant. But education chiefs in Leeds fear there may be more and are poised to combat them if they are identified.
Paul Brennan, Leeds City Council’s deputy director for learning and skills, said: “There were only the two named schools we knew of, though I suspect there were three or four others. When I sent out a global email to Leeds schools, some got back to me to say they had encountered similar issues and had had to deal with them already.
“This is the modern world we live in. But children and young people have to understand they don’t live in a cyberbubble and at the other end of a machine is a human being.
“The immediate issue is to close these pages but there are bigger issues regarding online dangers which we need to talk about, because this sort of thing isn’t going to go away.
“It’s Facebook today, but in a few years time there might be something else to take its place which poses another threat. Social networking can have so many positive effects, but it has so many potential negative ones too.
“For now we’re providing schools and parents with as much advice as we can, but families and schools and web providers and the police all need to work together to combat cyber bullying.”
The police take cyber bullying seriously and don’t shrink from the idea of taking action when it’s appropriate and practical.
A spokesperson for West Yorkshire Police said: “With the increase in popularity of sites such as Facebook over recent years, reports of cyber bullying have steadily increased, with many people being unaware of how comments made online can be seen as bullying and, if reported, could lead to people being arrested and cautioned.
“West Yorkshire police have a duty to investigate any reports where people feel that they have been abused or threatened in any way, whether verbally or online. In extreme cases, we will consult with the CPS to decide whether action above and beyond a caution is necessary.”
But the problem facing law enforcers is the sheer volume of online interaction, which is growing all the time. The criminal justice system is constantly playing catch up.
Even Facebook admit that they have seen a worrying rise in the number of bullying pages similar to the ‘Dirty Secrets’ pages. Only last week a cluster of similar pages in South Yorkshire were identified and duly removed by Facebook.
The internet giant has a strict policy on what groups and pages are allowed, but that relies on individuals discovering and reporting them before any harm is done. And even if they are discovered there’s little the police can do because most of the posts are anonymous and, at present, there are no mechanisms in place to trace those who post offensive messages.
Anti-cyber-bullying campaigners like Mike Bush insist there should be, and point to the fact that in other countries, like Malaysia, they’re not only implementing available technology but also creating legislation which helps to track down abusers. He believes there should also be new laws created to combat the growing threat and has enlisted the help of his MP, Stuart Andrew.
Mr Andrew has already agreed to ask for a debate on cyber bullying in the House of Commons to tackle the subject.
“I don’t think for a second I have the ultimate solution already,” he says “but I really just wanted to get the subject out there. I don’t think people realise the scale of this problem, not just politically but also among the general public.
“And I don’t think people realise how upsetting this is for young people, how it can make them depressed and lead to them taking their own lives. My own life was affected profoundly when I was younger because a friend of mine was bullied and took his own life. He was just 18 – it was such a waste.
“And I do think that young people are so much more at risk, not only because they use technology more and are more sensitive, but because if they are being bullied at school then they come home and they can’t even escape it. Every time they turn on the computer or look at their phone there might be another cruel message there. It’s just horrendous.
“I am open-minded about the idea of creating new legislation to counteract the dangers of the internet. It’s a difficult one because you have to balance freedom of speech with the responsibility that comes with. But I think the first measure is raising everyone’s awareness of cyber bullying.”