Bullying of any kind, including the modern phenomenon of online, so-called cyber-bullying, can have a devastating impact on children or young people.
Tragically, we appear to have seen another example of this in the recent case of 14-year-old Hannah Smith, apparently driven to take her own life after suffering online bullying and harassment.
Parents and carers often wonder what they can do to protect their children from this phenomenon and can feel overwhelmed and confused by it – particularly as cyber-bullying, because of its very nature, is difficult to escape.
It can spread rapidly and uncontrollably, especially through channels such as Facebook and Twitter.
More disturbingly, it can happen in the home, a place where children and young people should feel safe.The internet, smartphones and social media sites are a fixed part of most young people’s lives these days and certainly provide fantastic opportunities for social development and fun.
However, they also create another way for children to be exposed to threats. We should never forget that although it is a virtual place, the online world can and often does, have real-life consequences.
At ParentLine Scotland, our national helpline for anyone caring for or concerned about a child, we take calls from many people looking for advice and support who are worried about children experiencing problems such as cyber-bullying. The often anonymous nature of this type of bullying makes it even more difficult to deal with for victims and parents.
However, it is crucial we remember it is people who keep children safe, not technology, so the best thing any parent can do is discuss the issue openly with their child.
A recent Children 1st survey found 48 per cent of parents felt their children were not safe using social networking sites. It is therefore hugely important parents and carers educate themselves about mobile and online technology to become fully aware of the potential hazards – and able to help their children avoid them.
Parents should talk to their children about staying safe online and using technology responsibly. Encourage them to speak up if they feel upset or threatened by anything they see or anyone they are communicating with online. Advise them to be more careful by restricting the amount of personal information they post, or by making their profile private and blocking messages from certain people. Talking to children about their online activities can help them feel they have someone to turn to if they are worried and to know what to do if there is a problem.
Parents or carers should also take a record of any threatening behaviour and alert their child’s school or the police. Equally, for parents whose children may be carrying out the bullying, it’s also important to discuss the issue and get their child to understand how their actions can harm others.
Today’s young people live in a world where technology is a core part of their lives; it is important that both children and parents are knowledgeable about this and also the implications of virtual activities.
While it is encouraging that young people are embracing new technologies, it is equally crucial that they – and their parents and carers – educate themselves and understand the risks.
This is the best way to make sure they enjoy online activities safely.
• Alison Todd is director of child and family services at Children 1st. Anyone concerned about a child can call ParentLine Scotland on 08000 28 22 33 for support and advice, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.