Campaign aims to help youngsters cope with cyberbullying

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STICKS and stones, so the saying goes, may break my bones but words... of course every school pupil has learned it at some time, for the anti-bullying retort has been around for generations.

Today, however, teenager Jasmine Smales has her own response to the people who might be tempted to make her young life a misery. Radical and unusual for someone of her age, it’s one sure-fire way of making certain any bitter words and snide comments can’t hurt her.

Cyber bullying can spiral very quickly into misery and despair for victims. Picture: Robert Perry

Cyber bullying can spiral very quickly into misery and despair for victims. Picture: Robert Perry

“I don’t have Facebook,” she shrugs. “Apart from not being one of those people who wants to waste their life on Facebook, it means I’m not doing ‘instant chat’ which I think makes it so much easier for people to say things and get away with it.

“They can hide behind it, say what they want,” she adds. “It’s definitely a major part of cyberbullying.”

The instant insult and bullying trolls are just one element of a modern problem that has left children and parents struggling to find new ways to cope with an age-old issue.

Throw into the mix the sinister world of sexting – where young people exchange lurid, sexual images of themselves, innocently unaware of the long term potential consequences or while under pressure from others – and the problems presented by a technological age require more than a simple schoolyard “sticks and stones” saying to tackle them.

Now in a bid to help youngsters affected by the scourge of cyberbullying, NHS Lothian’s Healthy Respect initiative – which offers help and support for young people across a range of issues – has unveiled a new anti-bullying campaign aimed at guiding them through the nightmare of trying to deal with it.

Timed to coincide with next week’s national anti-bullying week, schools and youth groups throughout Lothian will receive web bullying tips and advice to distribute to young people along with guidance aimed at the professionals who are being increasingly called upon to help.

Included in the campaign are two powerful short films created by Lasswade High School pupils which highlight how quickly bullying can spiral into misery and despair for victims.

It will be unveiled at the school today by former pupil, Forth One presenter Mark Martin, who will meet the school’s Respect Us anti-bullying group who made the films and launch a powerful anti-bullying song, I’m Not Giving Up, written and recorded by third-year pupil Jasmine.

Her moving song includes the powerful lines: “I don’t know if they know, They hurt me so much I just want to make sure, That they know I’m not giving up”.

Jasmine, 14, from Lasswade, drew on her own experiences of bullying to come up with the song: “I was bullied for a lot of reasons, I’m quite quirky, and ‘weird’ and people don’t like that,” she explains. “They didn’t like my hair, don’t like a lot of things about me, all of them really petty.

“I started not wanting to go to school and feeling quite depressed. But writing songs has helped because I feel I’m doing something proactive to stop it.”

DJ Mark agrees that today’s web bullying is a world away from the name calling and nasty remarks that he experienced at school. “It was minor compared to what a lot of kids go through and there wasn’t any social media then, which seems to be a big problem today,” he says.

“It was a lot of little digs. I wanted to be a radio presenter or on television and once people found that out there were lots of snide comments that knocked my confidence.

“I spoke to teachers who were very supportive and I had good positive influences around me who got me through it.”

He says he now adopts a “don’t feed the trolls” attitude when confronted with people online who want to abuse him. And he has a message to the online bullies: “They should know that the technology is becoming more sophisticated and everyone leaves a footprint online.”

Tracking down the bullies, however, could come too late for some. In September it emerged that 14-year-old Hannah Smith, from Leicestershire had taken her own life after being targeted by internet bullies via question and answer forum Ask.fm. Her death came just weeks after news that 17-year-old Daniel Perry from Dunfermline had taken his own life after becoming tangled in a webchat internet scam.

While official figures of the extent of the problem are vague because many victims don’t seek help, child welfare charities warn the bullying can lead to anxiety, depression, self harm and even attempts at suicide. Children as young as 11 are reported to be among those affected.

One growing area of concern involves “sexting” – where young people exchange sexual images and videos online, sometimes willingly but also sometimes because they have been threatened or tricked.

“Sexting is a real issue and it’s very widespread,” says Leanne Rockingham of NHS Lothian’s Healthy Respect programme. “The comments we are getting is that this behaviour is becoming ‘normalised’ for young people. But they don’t realise the ramifications of publishing these images.”

Some may exchange images with a person they are in a relationship with, only for the other person to publish them when the relationship ends.

“Cyberbullying is different from face to face, it’s harder to escape it. Children are in their bedroom, but they can still be contacted,” she adds.

She says the new campaign focuses on reminding young people to seek support and to take control of what they put on the internet. “It’s this feeling that they have to do it, it’s expected of them,” adds Leanne. “We want young people to know they can speak about it and feel comfortable talking to school nurses, youth workers or services across Lothian where professionals are equipped to help.

“They really do not need to suffer in silence.”

For help with cyberbullying and other issues affecting young people, visit www.healthyrespect.co.uk

It’s OK to say ‘no’

Health professionals are becoming increasingly concerned at a trend among young people known as “sexting”, when explicit images or videos are shared online or using mobiles.

One recent ChildLine survey among 13 to 18-year-olds revealed 60 per cent have been asked for a sexual image or video and 40 per cent had created an image or video of themselves. A third said the images were sent to someone they had “met” online but didn’t know in real life. And 15 per cent said the photo or video had gone to a total stranger.

According to Healthy Respect spokeswoman Leanne Rockingham, young people often don’t appreciate the implications of what they are doing.

She says parents should look out for general tell-tale signs that their youngsters are unhappy. “Parents should equip themselves with information about what [social media] is currently being used. It’s not about taking their phones or laptops off them or denying them because that creates its own issues. It’s better to try to encourage young people to speak about their feelings and making them aware that they can say ‘no’.”