Are 'sexting' and 'cyberbullying' worse than offline versions?

At present you can’t move without the words ‘sexting’ and ‘cyberbullying’ leaping out and slapping you in the face. Together, they are getting blamed for everything. In May the Priory Group - which offers mental health services to children and adults – released statistics which suggested a clear rise in 12- to 17-year-olds being treated for serious depression or anxiety issues. The figures showed these went from 178 in 2010 to 262 in 2014.

Priory Group held the increasing normality of sexting and resulting ease of bullying comments as responsible, and warned about how all this might impact teens later in life. The Daily Mail was on to this like a shot with its carefully screeched headline: “Sexting and online bullying is fuelling teenage depression: Admissions for anxiety up by 50% in just four years”. We contacted Priory Group for more information, it got in touch, but failed to respond to questions.

There is no denying bullying is an extremely serious problem. It is rife in all schools. And depending on its severity its legacy can have a lasting impact through people’s lives. In fact, a study published this April in the Lancet Psychiatry suggested childhood bullying is as severe – and sometimes even worse – than long-term abuse. Yet, terrible though it is, it is old news – until you throw ‘cyber’ into the mix and everyone jumps on a ‘modern life is evil’ bandwagon.

This is no truer than when it comes to the specific pressures faced by teenage girls. The theory runs:  ‘the meteoric rise of smartphones and sexting’ makes it especially easy for people to post nasty comments about girls’ bodies. This is no doubt all true. Yet surely a lot of shrillness occurs because a new suitably shocking word is used?

And similar things have always gone on. Teenage relationships have always been intense. There has always been power play involved. And carelessly delivered marks out of 10, horrible notes circulated round classrooms, pejorative names casually bandied about, have long been regular fare. The resultant eating disorders and self-harm have been rife for decades.

Suzanne Virdee, a journalist and author of A Teenage Girl's Guide To Being Fabulous agrees “sexting, easy access to hard core porn, grooming and cyberbullying” have been problems that “to some extent have always existed outside cyberspace” but she feels “online they are darker and harder to make sense of.” This is partly because they take place in the child’s own bedroom.

Is bullying worse today?

“The internet is a convenient whipping boy for the persistent problem of bullying,” says Nik Pollinger a digital anthropologist. This means addressing bullying and improving children’s mental health doesn’t mean banning the internet or necessarily having greater controls over its use – “after all school is an ostensibly adult-controlled space.”

Many teachers will wilfully deny that bullying is a problem in school. In fact, one of my more nonsense memories of primary school is sitting cross-legged on the assembly hall floor while the head teacher stood at the front of us all yelling and finger jabbing: “There is no bullying in my school!” “Um…” we all thought in bemusement: “Yes, there is!” Presumably a disgruntled parent had got involved…

And bullying can become even harder for adults to identify when kids reach their teens. One absolutely brilliant analysis appears in Margaret Atwood’s 1988 novel, Cat’s Eye. This addresses the power play between three teenage girls in mid twentieth century Canada and does an excellent job of showing how nothing is ever cut and dried. 

“Prominent social scientist danah boyd [decapitalisation deliberate and by deed poll] has pointed out that bullying is not rising historically speaking and the internet has not caused it to rise noticeably,” says Pollinger. “School is invariably still reported as the place bullying mostly happens and causes the most harm. What happens over social media often perpetuates what happens in school.”

However, Virdee warns: “When you consider the fact that the average 12-15 year old has never met one in four of their ‘friends’ on social networking sites alarm bells should start ringing. We live in a society that rewards exhibitionism, just look at the rise of the 'selfie'. Most of the time it's harmless. But it's tempting to share far too much on social media.”

Are parents more engaged than they used to be?

“The crucial difference that fuels the concern about cyberbullying is visibility,” says Pollinger. “Parents have little insight into what happens offline but online interactions leave digital traces. These traces are difficult to interpret for an adult and can lead to the wrong conclusions about their effect.”

This is an interesting point. In fact, a recent piece of research from security software firm ESET revealed that 54% of UK parents would have no idea if their child was being cyberbullied and that 52% would not know what to do if this were the case. It is harder to find equivalent research in the offline arena - but then it is not in the interests of so many commercial companies to conduct this kind of study.

Maybe this flurry of media hype is what is what is driving parents to take more notice? After all, the attitude people take to bullying partly come down to expectations. In physical playground situations, the standard advice was often “punch them back” if it related to physical violence, or “ignore them and go and play with someone else” if it was of the more whispering in corners variety.

Yet most of the parents of today’s teens would not have had the internet through their own childhood or teenage years. Social media is really quite new and the sites favoured by kids are not the same as the ones used by their parents. The chances are this online world occupied by their offspring is all a bit of mystery.

Of course, this was always true in real life but ‘cyber’ adds a new terrifying dimension. And while many parents might have been inclined to ignore - or even deny - real-life-bullying, when it comes to the online alternative, they might be primed to respond. Besides, this might take place in the parents’ own home, rather than at school, so they can see evidence for themselves.

“With each new generation, the innate use and user ability surrounding technology grows, and the gap between them and the last generation gets larger,” suggests Charles Sweeney, CEO, Bloxx. “Digital communication, and the threat landscape it inhabits, must be better understood to prevent these worrying reports of depression in young people that are becoming more prevalent and dare we say it, directly attributed to omnipresent online activity.”

Social networking firms are all keen to be seen to be doing something. In mid-May Reddit launched an “anti-harassment policy” which allows the company to ban bullies from its site. While Kassem Younis, CEO of anonymous messaging app, Thoughts Around Me, is keen to stress:

“It is important that [social] networks take responsibility for helping to promote mutual respect and positivity, while giving their user base the ability to moderate and report abusive behaviour letting them set the moral compass guiding the content.”

Is the cyberbullying hype good or bad?

Many security firms seem intent on proving this problem is worsening. This type of thought leadership is likely to help sell solutions. “The true extent of the problem is likely to be even worse as more and more children start engaging online from a younger age,” suggests David Emm, Principal Security Researcher at Kaspersky Lab.

He goes on to cite research which reveals that the majority of parents believe that cyberbullying is not a problem until children reach at least 10 and so don’t plan to address it until then. “This perception is clearly misguided,” he adds.

The good news is that parents are being pushed to take more notice of a serious ongoing problem. “It means adults investing a lot more time and effort in educating about healthy relationships and empathy to produce strong individuals,” says Pollinger. “It also means providing meaningful support that works with youths’ desire to be seen to be in control when bullying happens.”

“It’s imperative that parents talk openly about the risks with their children as soon as they start interacting online – which may be younger than they think,” says Kaspersky’s Emm. “This will ensure that the issue is addressed before it becomes a problem and will help to enable parents, and children, to stay one step ahead of the cyberbullies and other online dangers.”

“It is important that parents have ongoing conversations,” about social networks and online and offline security suggests Raj Samani from Intel Security.

“Children are naturally very inquisitive and trusting and the internet and social media attracts them like moths to a flame. As a society we need to incorporate internet safety into lessons at school and parents need help to do this at home too,” adds Virdee.

In truth, it is hard to extract the hype and the reality when it comes to a topic as emotive as cyberbullying amongst children. And the focus is both good and bad. On the one hand it does promote a lot of empty shouting. On the other it clearly encourages parents to address a serious subject.  This is critically important… whether the bullying is taking place online or offline.


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