Millions of young people across the UK have successfully integrated digital technology such as the internet and mobile phones into their everyday lives. The benefits of this are manifold; the freedom that social networking sites (SNS), instant messenger, chat rooms and mobile technology afford to young people allows them to express themselves and socialize in new and fun ways. Learn more on cyberbullying in the UK Now!

At its worst, however, the internet and mobile phones can channel grotesque imagery and behaviours. Unmonitored access to cyberspace makes possible new forms of abuse and indecency in which children can be exposed as unsuspecting targets. Digital technology is socially neutral: a tool for interaction rather than an inevitable weapon of abuse. As such, mobile phones and the internet can be utilized in different ways, depending on the intention and caution of the user.

Children and young people have long been highlighting how cyber-bullying is one of the main challenges they have to face within the digital world. Given that there are approximately 4,424,000 children aged 11-16 in the UK, this figure can be extrapolated to suggest that over 340,000 children have experienced insidious bullying inflicted via digital technology, says Virtual Violence: Protecting Children from Cyberbullying, a report by BeatBullying.

The latest figures from Beatbullying also reveal that nearly one-in-three 11-16-year-olds have been deliberately targeted, threatened, or humiliated by an individual or group through the use of mobile phones or the internet. For a quarter of these, the experience was ongoing, meaning that 1-in-13 children were persistently cyberbullied.

A growing body of evidence is emerging that identifies peer-to-peer bullying as an increasing component of our young people’s daily experience in cyberspace. However, youth aren’t all equal in the cyber-bullying attacks they receive, for their personal attributes play a rather large role in this. For one, pupils with Special Educational Needs, those have a learning difficulty or disability, are 16% more likely to be persistently cyber bullied over a prolonged period of time, as well as those receiving free school meals, which as an indicator of increased deprivation or poverty, who are 13% more likely to receive attacks through the cyberspace. Ethnicity and gender have a role to play as well in terms of who is more prone to cyberbullying than others, as white non-British ethnic backgrounds all reported a higher incidence of this intense form of cyberbullying. In addition, girls experienced twice as much persistent cyberbullying as boys.

Cyberbullying in the UK: Where does cyberbullying happen?

…On the Internet and via communication technologies, yes. But where?

In terms of the specific websites on which cyber-bullying has been taking place, the MSN instant messenger service, the Bebo social networking site, and its counterpart, Facebook, were the worst offenders. This was the case for both children who had been bullied and for children who had witnessed others being bullied. The video sharing site, YouTube, was also identified as a common place where footage of bullying was proliferated, as it makes it possible for anyone with an internet connection to upload a video that millions of people could watch within a few minutes.

Bebo, through which 10% of respondents surveyed by BeatBullying had been bullied, is a social networking site that offers excellent functionality and is also exceptionally popular with teenagers. Those children that had been persistently bullied through Bebo tended to be younger, with an average age of 13, and most commonly complained of people leaving hurtful comments, editing their photos or publishing private information about them. The ease with which content can be added to Bebo undoubtedly facilitates this. For example, one 12-year old girl said she was cyberbullied because: “They said they could see me when I get changed in the same room and he/she was taking pictures of me and putting them on Bebo and they even sent rude texts.”

Cyberbullying attacks on Facebook usually comprise of arguments that turn into popularity contests. Someone will spark off the conflict with a claim or rude post on the other person’s wall or photo and it will lead to a string of abusive and sarcastic messages. The rules of the battle are to remain nonchalant throughout and the winner is decided by whose comments received the most “likes”. It then becomes almost a spectacle with everyone watching the fight unfold and messaging each other on who they think is faring the best. The bravest friends stick up for their comrade with their own comments and those less willing to get involved will simply join the mass of likes. This goes on until the receiver or the poster of the original message has enough sense to delete it and the fight continues in private.

Unfortunately, not all cases are so harmless and some can lead to serious emotional damage. A friend of a friend was a recent target when girls in her year created a Blackberry messenger group about her. It was comprised of over 20 people messaging each other about how they should kill the “slag”, supposedly because she was going out with an older boy. They then added her to the conversation and she wasn’t seen at school for two weeks.

Cyberbullying in the UK: ‘Sexting’ and Sexual Bullying

Access to adult pornography is not the only way children in the UK can be exposed to inappropriate sexual content online. Sexting – sending messages or images with sexual content via mobile phones or the internet – is a widening avenue by which cheap, gratuitous, and often unsolicited, sexual material is reaching young people. What is more, it is children themselves recording and circulating the images

BeatBullying’s August 2009 report revealed that a third of children have received a message and a quarter received an image on the subject of sex. While a small proportion of these ‘sexts’ were from an unknown source or were spam, the vast majority, 85%, were identified as sent by someone the recipient knew. These senders were largely from the opposite sex.

As The Guardian reported, one 14-year old girl sent an explicit photo to her then boyfriend because ‘he said he loved me and if I cared about him, I’d do it… After I sent him that picture, he ignored me and put [it] up on Bebo and Facebook saying I was easy’

In more extreme cases of Cyberbullying in the UK,  the sexual solicitations between young people can lead to offline encounters and statutory rape. In May 2009, for example, The Daily Mail reported that a group of teenagers were sentenced to six years in jail for the rape of an under-18-year-old in Essex. The three defendants first met the girl two years prior to the crime, when they began chatting with her on Bebo and Facebook.

Cyberbullying in the UK: More serious consequences…

“You should go and kill yourself because you don’t mean anything to anyone.”

When 14-year-old Carney Bonner read this Facebook message, he was so distressed that he began to self-harm. The cyber-bullying continued for a year, by a bully who he believes created an account under a false name. Carney, who described himself as “loud” and “always outgoing”, was initially unfazed. At first, he thought it was a joke, but then the messages became more abusive. It started eating into his self-confidence, and it all started going downhill,

“Things would have got a lot worse if one of my friends hadn’t seen my wrists,” he said. Now, Bonner is a Cyber-Mentor, according to the BBC.

In another story, two sixteen-year-old girls from Blackburn, Lancs, tricked a girl into believing she had an online boyfriend, imaginary Jaydon Rothwell, all through a three-month hoax relationship. The bullies even got a pal to pretend to be Jaydon and meet the girl in a park. She said it was dark, she was drunk and he looked similar to his ­Facebook picture. They kissed and she went home delighted.

What followed was convincing her that he had killed himself, and the bullies sent the traumatized fifteen-year-old threatening calls, texts and Facebook messages, accusing her of driving him to suicide.  After police investigations, no reports of sudden deaths were found, and the girls were arrested and made to apologize for causing harm to the victim who was made to feel so gullible. The hoax revealed itself to be revenge for the girl being involved with one of the bullies’ ex-boyfriends.

It can get even scarier.

According to the cyberbullying charity the Cybersmile Foundation, every 20 minutes a child between 10 to 19 years of age attempts to commit suicide in England and Wales, while one in three children in the UK suffers from cyber-bullying.

Although the famous Amanda Todd suicide happened in the Canadian province of British Columbia, the UK has been no exception to the tragic consequences that accompany chronic child depression. In 2009, 15-year old schoolgirl Megan Gillan took a fatal overdose of painkillers in June after bullies waged a hate campaign against her on Bebo, the popular SNS. Two months later, another 15-year old girl, Holly Grogan, jumped to her death after being bullied on Facebook.

In June 2008, a bright 13-year-old who loved music, video games and football, Sam Leeson, was subject to a campaign by internet bullies that drove him to suicide. He was targeted because of his taste in music and love of wearing black clothes. Sam hanged himself in his bedroom after months of being bombarded by cruel jibes on Bebo, for being “emo” as they called him.

Beyond the tragedy of a life so cruelly cut short, the fact that these young people felt they had no alternative but to commit suicide should surely awaken us to the acute child-on-child violence made possible by cyber bullying.