SPECIAL REPORT DAY 2: Caught in a web where moral codes don’t apply

For Irish teens, their ‘virtual’ world is as real as the rest of their lives. But has the unsupervised freedom we afford them online created a monster we can’t control, asks Claire O’Sullivan

THE web is the ‘real’ world for teenagers. It’s where they communicate with friends and make friends, it’s where they create allegiances, form and express opinions, ‘meet up’, and it’s where they forge their identity.

The web is a phenomenal communications device, so despite the urge to control cyberbullying, it is not realistic to shut down sites if they’re not criminally negligent. A similar site will pop up within days.

The consensus is that we need a thoughtful response to cyberbullying, not just emotive reactions that make us feel in control.

When the Irish Examiner spoke to 20 teenagers, aged 15-17, the majority of them had experienced ‘hate’ online. Academic research into bullying rates in Ireland shows 35-40% of children are being victimised in schools, but just 15% experience cyberbullying.

Headstrong’s Dr Gillian O’Brien says the low (15%) figure may be because youngsters have normalised mild cyberbullying or have become desensitised to online aggression. “They can see a lot of it as banter and not necessarily as cyberbullying,” she says. But cyberbullying is on the increase internationally.

Many parents are concerned that their children are spending too much time in a ‘world’ where bullying is rife and where the normal codes of behaviour don’t apply.

The web is an opportunity for creativity and imagination, due to its lack of controls, but it’s that unfettered freedom that has created a new ‘wild west’.

As the hugely popular yet controversial Askfm has shown, it’s a world where you can easily shrug off your identity.

It’s also a space where the bullied child can transform into the bully and where repercussions are minor and morality loose.

“Offline, ‘in real life’, because assholes exist, we have laws and a legal system to deal with them; online, there is barely a clear code of conduct.

“Nothing really happens when someone is an asshole. Only recently has it actually happened where people have been convicted of crimes online,” says Ciaran McMahon, lecturer in psychology at Dublin Business School.

Bullying on Askfm, Spillit and FaceBook means you don’t have to witness the consequences of your actions, if you are anonymous or using an avatar.

Dr Conor McGuckin, educational psychologist at Trinity College Dublin, says cyberbullying is particularly “potent as you’ve left a permanent history when you post a bullying comment or send a sext”.

“The bullying doesn’t dissipate and so the victim can go back and look at it repeatedly and get repeatedly traumatised. Such variables are not in place in traditional bullying,” he says.

Dr McGuckin says the rapid escalation of online bullying is worrying. Instead of it building up over weeks, as would happen with traditional bullying, it can “accelerate over hours”.

There’s a belief among adults that children ‘grow up so much faster these days’. But, Dr McGuckin says, teenagers nowadays are no more emotionally mature than they were 30 years ago. It’s all a veneer.

“The rate of change and development online has taken place incredibly fast, but the fact is that young people’s emotional repertoire hasn’t sped up.

“It still develops at the same speed as it did when their parents were teenagers, and so, no matter what we think, many of them just can’t cope with the onslaught of abuse they receive online,” he says.

Even if they can’t cope (and the interviews with teenagers published in the Irish Examiner yesterday showed that boys feel a need to put on a macho front when it comes to cyberbullying), teenagers are reluctant to tell parents or teachers, as they fear their phone being removed, reprisal from the bully, or being called a ‘snitch’.

Often, they don’t want to deactivate their FaceBook or Askfm account because, as many of the teenagers said yesterday, they’ll “be completely cut off”.

If parents and teachers, and the overriding wisdom is that parents have the lead role to play here, are to engage with cyberbullying, they will have to start seeing the online world from the child’s perspective.

“Removing phones from teenagers if they’re being bullied doesn’t work, as it’s like removing their oxygen. But children and teenagers need to learn rules and regulations. Also, parents shouldn’t negate the web out of fear as it has very positive uses,” says Dr McGuckin.

Teenagers talk of the generation gap between them and their parents.

Often, when it comes to technology, it’s a generation gulf, says Rita O’Reilly, chief executive of Parentline.

Some parents are scared of technology, she says, and some are in denial about what their children are engaging with.

The ‘experts’ say that parents need to face up to their children’s ‘brave new world’.

“Getting up to speed with the web may seem daunting, but parents have to make it their business. They need to have open conversations with their children without invading their space,” says Dr O’Brien.

Children also need to know the devastating consequences that online bullying can have, and they need to be aware of the dangers of ignoring someone else being bullied, she says.

Tackling cyberbullying isn’t about parents taking crash courses in social media. Much of the bad behaviour online, and vulnerability to cyberbullying, can be prevented through good old-fashioned parenting, says Dr McGuckin.

“A phone is not a child-minder and doesn’t make up for not knowing where your child is at any one time. In general, parents need to talk more to children and teenagers, and do things with their children.

“We’re living in a very fast-moving society, but we need to slow down and ask what are we expecting of our children, what are we expecting them to shoulder?” he says.

Both Dr McGuckin and Ms O’Reilly believe in a need to create a space — Ms O’Reilly has suggested school — where phones aren’t allowed.

“We need to look at removing the constant need for technology. We need to parent: to know what they are doing and with whom. We need to sit down and play board games with them, go for a walk with them, talk to them. Parents don’t have to be responsible for their children’s problems, but we do need to be responsible for our children. They need to be taught the difference between online reality and real life. We need to talk to them about values in life, respect, and values and respect online,” Ms O’Reilly says.

A number of the teenagers we spoke to yesterday said their teachers “didn’t want to know about cyberbullying” as it happened at home as much as at school. Another 16-year-old girl said that they didn’t talk to teachers about cyberbullying as “teachers will want names and that’s just going to cause you more problems”. The vast bulk of the students, who went to five different secondary schools in the Cork city area, said they used their phones in class.

Yet Donal O’Buachalla, president of the National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals, says that phone usage during class is not commonplace in Irish schools.

“Each school will have their individual phone policy, but the use of phones in class is definitely something that teachers would frown upon as it would interrupt teaching. In most schools, there are policies of using phones at break times only,” he says.

Mr O’Buachalla is sceptical of Parentline’s suggestion that schools could become phone-free zones.

“Phones are part of teenagers’ lives now. They’re important for connecting and for parents making contact with children about pick-up, etc. We can’t just ban them in school,” he says.

“I would also strongly disagree that schools don’t want to know about cyberbullying. The emotional and personal development of a child is very important to schools.

“Schools will always work to educate and counsel children, through their pastoral role and guidance counselling. The important thing is that pupils realise the possible consequences of their actions online. But it is not only schools.

“Parents are the primary educator of their children and we have to work with our children so they act responsibly online. All education is about helping create responsible young adults,” he says.

The Irish Examiner requested interviews with the Latvian-based Askfm, and Spillit. Neither responded. Last March, as a result of the harassment suffered by some users, Facebook revamped its procedures on how to report bullying, offensive content, and malicious or fake profiles.

The new programme enables users to instantly connect with a crisis counsellor through Facebook’s ‘chat’ messaging system.

Facebook does not troll though users’ messages, but, instead, encourages people who spot a suicidal thought on a friend’s page to report it by clicking a link next to the comment. An email will then be sent to the person who posted the suicidal comment, encouraging them to call the hotline or click on a link to begin a confidential chat. O’Buachalla says these checks and balances can’t be underestimated as there is no point in shooting the messenger.

“The web is here to stay. Children and teenagers have benefited enormously from the freedom of it, so they just have to be taught what is acceptable behaviour online.”

As for the law, it’s non-existent or too slow, due to the international nature of the web. Britain has amended its Defamation Bill to give people who control websites a defence against libel. Now, operators are allowed to identify a person behind an alleged defamation.

While the changes would not stop trolling, they include measures to prevent false claims.

The Department of Justice and Equality has said that it won’t consider similar legislation “until adequate consideration has been given to the relevant proposals”.

There is much focus on parents and teachers in discussion of the prevention of cyberbullying. But what of the body that oversees education in this country?

In 1993, the only mobile phone we knew was the portable landline, and Tim Berners-Lee had just developed the ‘world wide web’, three years previously; it remained the preserve of a scientific elite.

Yet, despite the remarkable technological advances of the past 20 years, the last official bullying guidelines for schools were issued by the Department of Education in 1993.

“Yes, they should be sufficiently generic to still use, but the sheer fact that they have not been updated since is a cause for comment and concern,” says Dr McGuckin.

Cyberbulling isn’t a taboo subject among Irish teenagers. They discuss it among themselves, while adults discuss it with other adults. There is a need for real conversation now, between parents and their children, but also between children and teachers.

Parents need to learn more about technology from kids, and kids need to learn from adults about being responsible ‘netizens’. Fear of technology isn’t a sufficient excuse for parents to avoid this. Ciara Pugsley wasn’t dead for a month when her father felt the need to appear on national TV to start this conversation. In his words, his family were “totally oblivious as to what happened on the internet … some of the stuff on there is outrageous”.

“Parents need to be more aware and check up on their children more. If you have to be unpopular, take a stance, restrict things and take things away, so be it,” said Mr Pugsley. “That’s a parenting thing. These websites are there to make money and don’t care about the trail of destruction they leave behind.”

Advice for parents

Don’t Reply:

Young people should never reply to messages that harass or annoy them. The bully wants to know they have upset their target. If they get a response, it feeds into the problem and makes things worse

Keep the Messages:

By keeping nasty messages, your child will be able to produce a record of the bullying, the dates, and the times. This will be useful for any subsequent school or garda investigation

Block the Sender:

No one needs to put up with someone harassing them.

Whether it’s mobile phones, social networking or chat rooms, children can block contacts through service providers.

Report Problems:

Ensure your child reports any instances of cyberbullying to websites or service providers. Sites like Facebook have reporting tools. By using these, your child will be passing important information to people who can help eradicate cyber-bullying.

(Source: webwise.ie).

How can I protect my child from being bullied online?

* As a parent, you can create a positive and supportive atmosphere. Don’t frown on ‘snitching’.

* Children are afraid to report it because they fear the bullying will escalate or that you will curtail their phone usage. By building awareness and being open with your child, they will feel empowered to talk to you.

* Learn about your child’s internet and phone use. Encourage your son or daughter to show you the websites they use. You will have the knowledge to make the right decisions as challenges arise.

* Encouraging good ‘netiquette’, an informal code of conduct for behaving online, is also a good idea. ‘Netiquette’ includes using correct language online, being polite, and not copying other people’s work, as well as complying with copyright laws surrounding music, video and image files.

(Source: webwise.ie, Dr Conor McGuckin)

*Read more:

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 2: Teens not taught how to behave online

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 2: Banning phones at school

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 1: Teens ‘spill it’ on the viciousness of cyberbullying

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 1: ’Phoebe … I’m sorry ... for the unkind words I said ...’

SPECIAL REPORT DAY 1: ‘Everyone else is doing it and you do get good stuff’


LETS TALK BULLYING: Buy the Irish Examiner booklet

Anti-bullying centre in Trinity Colege Dublin

The Department of Justice's Office for Internet Safety

Webwise: Online collection of internet safety resources

Cybertraining: Academic research on cyberbullying

Internet Safety for Schools by UCC forensic psychologist, Dr Maureen Griffin.


Parentline: Tel. 1890 927 277

Childline:Tel. 800 666 666

Teen-Line Ireland: Tel: 1800 833 634.


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