World wise web

Banning young people from using social media websites will not solve cyberbullying. Instead, teenagers need to be taught how to behave responsibly online, writes Ian Power

THE internet is an incredible invention, certainly the most important of the last century. It has transformed business, sparked social change, and has been a positive space for the majority of users.

Concerns about the safety of young people online have been growing in the wake of the tragic deaths of Leitrim teenager Ciara Pugsley and 13 year-old Erin Gallagher from Donegal after anonymous comments were posted on social networking site www.ask.fm.

Calls have been made for social media websites to be regulated more closely to prevent recurrences of recent tragedies, but is it solely a case of regulation or is there a place for education to play a role?

Comprehensive regulation of social media has become almost impossible, not least owing to the difficulties in identifying users, especially those living overseas. Instead we must teach young people how to use the power of the internet for good and know when to report inappropriate or harmful online behaviour.

Learning how to interact online is just as important as emphasis placed on the development of interpersonal skills offline. Parents teach their children how to behave in real life situations and it should be no different when young people log onto sites such as Facebook.

Those who become cyberbullies or impact negatively on the experience of others need educating too; primarily they need to be made aware of the impact of their actions. There is a case for social education to take place in ICT lessons in schools so that young people are not only taught how to use the tools, but how to show respect for other users.

As social media evolves to encompass more than just Facebook and Twitter, new plug-in services like formspring, www.ask.fm, and others will become more and more popular. These sites allow people to comment anonymously leaving young people open to the risk of bullying and harassment.

What’s important to remember is that what is being said is not true, it’s not acceptable, and victims of such behaviour should take a step back and talk to someone they trust if they are worried or feel uncomfortable.

One suggestion has been to ban offending websites or have parents prevent their young people from using certain social media sites.

We must remember bullying takes place offline too and banning young people would be as reasonable as banning bullying victims from ever going outside again. We simply need to educate young people on how to interact online just as we do in real life. We also need to show our young people where to go for help if they do become concerned about another user’s behaviour.

It is so important we have an open conversation with our children from an early age about being responsible users of the internet. Parents need to talk to children about the impact of words written online and explain the negative effects hurtful words can have offline as well as online.

Don’t be afraid to point to previous tragedies to illustrate the drastic effects simple words can have on a young person. Developing these lines of communication and building up trust with young people, so they know they have a trusted adult to talk to if they come across something online that worries, upsets or has an negative impact on them.

We also need to remember that we won’t be able to control everything young people do and say online.

In that regard it’s important to ensure that young people know how to stay safe online by:

* Not sharing too much information;

* Not meeting up with online contacts they don’t know;

* Knowing how to block/report;

* Knowing bullying of any form is not acceptable;

* Knowing who to ask for help (ie, www.childline.ie, www.console.ie, etc).

The internet is such an important developmental space for young people, and offers incredible opportunities through access to the educational resources it hosts. Keeping up to speed with developments in online technology will be hugely important for the working lives of our current generation of young people.

We as a society need to acknowledge and be open about the risks faced by young people online, but by no means should we encourage children to be afraid of the internet.

If we teach young people the difference between good and bad online behaviour, then there is no reason why they can’t become confident and responsible webs users.

You can do this by following a few steps:

* Explain what is and isn’t appropriate to post online;

* Remind them that all private information can be made public. Posts on friends’ walls, private instant messages and intimate photos can all be copied, pasted, and sent around;

* It’s normal for young people to explore their identity, but keep an eye on the persona they’re creating, and make sure they don’t use anonymity as an excuse for bullying behaviour — or ignoring it when they see it;

* Tell your children to think before they reveal personal information about themselves.

Bullying has always existed in one form or another but the tools being used to inflict pain on victims have changed dramatically in the last few years. Surprisingly for some, the advice is the same; ignore, keep evidence, and report to your school or an adult you trust.

No matter what form the bullying takes, it’s the behaviour of the young people causing the damage that needs tackling, urgently.

* Ian Power is communications and marketing officer with www.spunout.ie

What to do if you are bullied online?

* DO NOT REPLY TO MESSAGES THAT HARASS OR ANNOY YOU

Even though you may be tempted to, this is exactly what the sender wants. They want to know that they’ve got you worried and upset. They are trying to mess with your head; don’t give them that pleasure. If you respond with an even nastier message, it makes them think that they really got to you, and that’s just what they want. They might even complain about you.

* KEEP THE MESSAGE

You don’t have to read it, but keep it. Keep a record that outlines, where possible, the details, dates, and times of any form of bullying that you experience. This would be useful were any investigation to be taken by your school, youth organisation, or even gardaí.

* TELL SOMEONE YOU TRUST

Talking to your parents, friends, a teacher, youth leader or someone else you trust is usually the first step in dealing with any issue. In the case of school-related bullying messages, you should also talk to a teacher you trust or a guidance counsellor about it. If you need to speak to someone in confidence straight away, you can call Childline on 1800 666 666, or get help through their online services at www.childline.ie.

* BLOCK THE SENDER

You don’t need to put up with someone harassing you. If you are getting messages that upset you on Bebo, Facebook, or on MSN, you can block the person simply by clicking the block button. On some mobile phones, you can restrict communications to an approved list of contacts. You might need to check the manual or ask an adult to help you do this. Mobile networks can not bar numbers but they will help you to change your phone number in the case of serious bullying.

* REPORT THE PROBLEM TO THE PEOPLE WHO CAN DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT

You can take control by not putting up with offensive content and by reporting it when you come across it. Responsible websites and mobile phone operators provide ways for their users to report things such as pornography, bullying content, or other offensive material.

* For further information, see:

www.webwise.ie

www.internetsafety.ie

www.spunout.ie

* Read morehere


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