Call for watchdog to tackle bullying online

Social media ombudsman urged as controversial Ask.fm moves here

A social media ombudsman needs to be created to deal with cyberbullying and online abuse, a leading anti-bullying expert has claimed.

Jim Harding, founder of the anti-bullying group Bully4U, also called for more powers to independently audit social media organisations such as Ask.fm, Facebook and Twitter.

Bully4U provides training to children and teachers at primary and secondary school on the dangers of cyberbullying. It warns that a huge number of schoolchildren they deal with say many social media comments are of “an extreme sexual nature”.

Mr Harding has made the call for Government to introduce “badly needed” statutory powers following the announcement that Ask.fm, which allows users to post anonymous questions to others, is to relocate to Ireland.

Bully4U deals with thousands of schoolchildren every year and, in conjunction with the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at Dublin City University, held the first national cyberbullying conference in September.

“There really needs to be more substantial powers to independently audit such websites as Ask.fm. People can just post comments anonymously, so there needs to be some sort of trail so that posts can be verified. Such posts include; ‘Go die, you are worthless,’” Mr Harding said.

“Having Ask.fm located in Dublin makes no difference when it comes to the use of social media as it has no worldwide borders. Hopefully one good thing of having the social media website located here is that it will push for the creation of a social media ombudsman, allowing these companies to be independently audited and for the introduction of fines if certain guidelines are not followed by these companies.

“Up to 30% of children we deal with feel that Twitter is the safest of the social media networks in use. Urgent measures to stop the creation of false social media accounts set up by children who are under the age of 13, need to be in place. Parents feel they have no influence in their children’s internet usage.”

Ask.fm in a statement said it plans to introduce a “law enforcement affairs officer” based in Ireland.

Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has also voiced concern on Ask.fm moving to Ireland and intends to raise the issue with the Government.

Ask.fm has come under scrutiny following the deaths by suicide of 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley in Leitrim and 13-year-old Erin Gallagher in Donegal in 2012. Erin’s older sister Shannon took her life soon afterwards. Their mother Lorraine has campaigned to have the site shut down.

Jonathan Pugsley, whose daughter Ciara took her life following alleged cyberbullying and who has condemned the relocating of Ask.fm to Ireland, said it “is worrying that the popularity of the site was increasing again”.

Ask.fm chief executive Doug Leeds said: “I can tell you that there are 180m global unique users that visit Ask.fm each month. Ireland is still a relatively small market for us, but we’ve seen 30% growth for registered users in Ireland in the last year.

“In terms of daily new registered users on a global scale, there were 400,000 new users in one day (earlier this year) caused by a spike in registrations in Thailand in April. In the last three months, the average number of daily registrations is between 120,000 and 140,000.”

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