Making cyberspace safe

DARKNESS: In the last few weeks a number of Irish homes have been plunged into a blackness from which they will never recover, two teenage girls who were being anonymously cyberbullied felt the only solution was suicide and they’re not the only ones.

In the last few weeks on the radio show, I’ve spoken to many people involved in all aspects of cyberbullying and I now realise their cyber-world is incredibly important to them. To tell your child to “switch off that stupid computer” and “never go on Facebook again” isn’t the answer. You have effectively punished and imprisoned the person who has been bullied rather than dealt with the bully.

Who are the cyberbullies? They can often be close friends, school mates, jealous girlfriends, and in some cases best friends. Cyberbullying feeds on anonymity. The bully is often not aware of the human consequences of their actions. Without seeing facial expressions and listening out for voice intonation, some online comments are picked up the wrong way and a simple argument turns into something more sinister. Anonymity is destroying social media. It is social mugging and in some case the mugging is fatal.

When a teenager logs in to Facebook they enter their world, their friends, their way of doing things. They take a walk down their main street, exchange music, talk to each other, socialise. When they’re finished they click X and return to our world. Their social media world is like a shopping centre.

So how do we police the shopping centres? We drop our daughters off, tell them to take care and not to talk to strangers, but occasionally a hooded mugger might knock them over and rob their phone. However, we have CCTV, store detectives, and security guards in the centres and we have laws that will deal with the criminal.

Accountability is the key.

Let’s apply the same rules where social media is concerned — as it stands we are allowing social anarchy to exist. We allow websites to operate without any form of licensing or accountability. That’s wrong.

We allow people to join these websites and remain completely anonymous and untraceable.

Wrong again.

We protect our passwords, our bank accounts, our hotel bookings, but not our children.

Wrong again.

We can trace our parcels, our lodgements, our taxis, but not the person bullying our own children. A clear understanding of how the cyberbully uses the internet is as important as understanding the cyberbully. If we remove anonymity and make the cyberbully and the host website more accountable for their actions, we’re close to dealing with cyberbullying. At the moment we are dealing with it the same way we dealt with school bullying 20 years ago. How did we deal with it? Badly and we’re only realising that now.

What responsibility do the parents have? We don’t really know about the cyber-world they inhabit. We can try to understand but it’s important for teenagers to have their own world. I remember as a teenager the world I occupied was so different to my parents.

As parents we can try to understand their online activities. Looking over their shoulder to see who they are talking to is not enough, monitoring the amount of time on Facebook is not enough, telling them to shut down when a rude remark about them is posted is not enough. We have a duty to ensure the world they live in, be it real or cyber, is a safe world. And it can be done.

The solution is technology. There are thousands of software development firms spending millions on protection software and whoever creates the package to protect our kids from cyberbullying and put an end to anonymous posting will allow the internet to take another important step forward.

One day children will look back in amazement at a time when anonymous bullies could make their life hell and websites were not held accountable for being a bizarre sanctuary for dangerous freaks.

Remove anonymity from the internet, introduce a secure software package that can trace all users’ details, encourage social media websites to ensure all anonymity is wiped out from their sites, and blacklist any sites that still allow it. Your teenager is a member of a cyber-club, and it’s our responsibility to ensure the club is being run properly. Don’t tell me accountability can’t exist in social media. It can. We just haven’t tackled it properly yet. Cyberbullying can be tackled when anonymity is tackled. Anonymity can be tackled when we all decide it’s a threat to our children’s lives.

It was a threat yesterday, it still is today, and it will be tomorrow if we don’t deal with it now.

* Colm Hayes presents The Colm Hayes Show on 2FM from 11am to 1pm, Monday to Friday

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