Young people have a right to be safe while using the internet

We all have a part to play in ensuring our young people are safe online, says Paul Gilligan

Young people have a right to be safe while using the internet

Recently, Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, who was being subjected to extensive online bullying, took her own life.

Her father has said that she was targeted on ask.fm — a website that allows people to post comments anonymously. David Cameron, the prime minister, has called on social networking sites to “clean up their act” and some major advertisers are withdrawing their business from the site.

Ask.fm are now engaging with British authorities to investigate the bullying and have issued a statement saying they are committed to keeping children and young people safe while online.

Hannah is the latest of a growing number of young people whose deaths have been attributed to cyberbullying and it is clear we need to do more to tackle this particularly insidious form of child abuse.

The internet enables access to vast, often unregulated, stores of information, most of which is useful and constructive but some of which is abusive, pornographic, violent, and damaging.

The internet can harm people, particularly vulnerable young people and those at risk of developing mental health difficulties. The experience of mental health providers on the ground is that cyberbullying and social networking is a significant factor in causing or exacerbating mental health difficulties in young people and this is beginning to be supported by international research. There is also a growing concern that social networking is exacerbating social isolation among vulnerable young people.

Internationally, about 20% of young people say they have experienced cyberbullying, a 2006 report indicated that more than 35% of young people have viewed pornography online and internationally about 20% of young people say they have engaged in cyberbullying.

A 2012 report by the Children’s Ombudsman indicated that cyberbullying and homophobic bullying are two of the most prevalent forms of bullying in Ireland and a recent report by the Irish Special Rappoteur on Child Protection called for the strengthening of the legislation relating to cyberbullying.

In many ways, the statistics hide the day-to-day impact cyberbullying can have on young victims. Many describe being subjected to continuing, ongoing widespread abuse which they cannot get away from and which in their eyes everybody knows about.

They describe how turning on their phone or computer becomes a nightmare and how no matter where they are, or what they are doing they are being “got at”. Many of the victims become depressed and we know of a small but tragic number where cyberbullying was one factor contributing to them taking their own lives.

A recent Oireachtas report identified these risks and made a number of recommendations including the introduction of a more robust system of imposing age restrictions on social network accounts, reviewing and implementing international best practice on preventing the misuse of SIM cards, and the establishment of a single regulatory body for social media.

Most significantly, the committee emphasised the importance of educating parents, teachers, and children on how to safely use social media.

No matter how much regulation and legislation we introduce, the only way we can protect our young people is to educate them and ourselves on how to understand and manage our internet lives and how to manage and protect our mental health.

This is a complex task involving young people, parents, and schools working together. It involves engaging with and educating ourselves about social media, the internet, and mental health and integrating this knowledge into everyday parenting and education practice.

It involves teaching young people how to be responsible, discerning internet users, who don’t abuse others and who don’t allow themselves to be abused. Cyberbullying is usually committed by people known to the victim — without access to the internet they would still most likely bully. So we need to intensify our efforts to tackle all forms of bullying. We need to engage young people directly in this process seeking their views on how they think social media can be made safer.

Service providers need to take their responsibilities seriously. Young people are the main customer base for most internet providers so it should not take the withdrawal of advertisers’ money to force providers to take action. A stronger regulatory system needs to be put in place internationally.

Young people now spend a significant amount of their day on social network sites. Trying to prevent them from using these sites is not just impossible but in many ways risks causing them to become socially isolated.

Our young people have a right to be safe while using what has now become an essential part of their lives. All of us have a part to play to ensure this safety.

- Paul Gilligan is chief executive of St Patrick’s Mental Health Service.

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