Cyberbullying in Ireland: A dark stain on the rich tapestry of a child’s mind and psychology that lasts for years
The increasing centrality of digital media in children’s lives and the eased access to social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, have breathed new life into bullying. Cyberbullying in Ireland poses a particular risk because there is a substantial lack of awareness; the victims do not realize they’re being bullied, the perpetrators do not fully recognize their actions as bullying, and the parents might be a bit slower to find out.
The virtual world has given bullies stronger grounds to victimize and humiliate, creating a corrosive impact on our children’s confidence, self-esteem, and mental health, and inevitably affecting their capacity to learn and to live.
Astounding Numbers, Facts and Stats on Cyberbullying in Ireland
Cyberbullying in Ireland has been brought to the attention of schools, society and the government due to the staggering data that research has revealed. Amidst national concern over the extent to which Cyberbullying in Ireland has become a social phenomenon, one that attention must be paid to, numbers and statistics only come a little close to uncovering the threat that cyberbullying forms towards children in Ireland.
According to recent EU Kids Online research, 99% of young people aged nine to sixteen in Ireland use the Internet, and over half of these have set up their own profile on a social networking site. Levels of bullying in Ireland are above average compared with the 25 other countries surveyed as part of Safer Internet Day, a global initiative to promote a safer internet for all users, especially young people.
Moreover, the ‘Growing Up in Ireland’ study highlights how over 24% of 9 to 17-year-olds have reported being bullied, while research by the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College has highlighted how one in four girls and one in six boys in Ireland have come in contact with cyber-bullying either as a victim, bully or both. Incidence rates tend to be slightly higher among girls than boys.
Cyberbullying in Ireland and Cases: As early as 7?
Chief executive of the National Parents Council Primary, Aine Lynch, said that while cyberbullying is mainly a problem among teenagers, children as young as seven are being bullied via technology. The primary school age category is becoming more exposed to technology, and consequently to being bullied. Reports of children in the age bracket of nine to 11 being bullied using Facebook, Bebo or over a mobile phone are more common, but there are isolated cases of seven- and eight-year-old children in Ireland being victims of cyber-bullying, which is more difficult to detect it than traditional bullying, as you don’t know who is doing it.
In April 2012, the Herald reported on a 10-year-old boy who was being terrorized online by bullies who had gone as far as creating a Facebook page titled “Everybody Hates [name].” The abuse became so bad that his parents opted to switch their son to a different school. The boy’s father, Gerry Dalton said: “We weren’t aware of the page because we don’t allow our youngest son on Facebook.”
This example brings to light the necessity of supervision from the parents’ side, as Facebook has a rule that children under 13 should not use their site. Studies and Facebook statistics have revealed a crazy 75% of eight-year-olds creating Facebook accounts… being aided by their parents in bypassing age restriction controls, which has heightened concerns about their vulnerability to cyberbullying at such a young age.
What we believe is that if parents are allowing young children to use social networking sites, they must be vigilant and supervisory of their kids’ activity, and if carrying a mobile phone is a must for whatever reason, mobile phones for children need neither the internet nor a camera.
Aftermath of Cyberbullying in Ireland, from Depression to Suicide
A sixteen-year-old girl was left traumatized by a vile campaign of internet abuse in which she was targeted for sick sexual references by teenage boys. The girl, a student at Colaiste Choilm in Ballincollig, Co Cork, was deeply upset by the comments posted about her on the Facebook page ‘Colaiste Choilm Memes’ over Christmas, which was launched on December 10th, 2012, but only became active on December 16, according to the Irish Independent.
While it initially involved humorous references to named teachers and celebrities, from December 19 the content became nasty in tone and focused almost entirely on the 16-year-old girl. When she was made aware of the postings, she initially dismissed them, calling them “sad”, but it wasn’t long before the attacks became more vicious, and they had the young girl begging for the posts to be taken down. In response, the girl was taunted with vile sexual references by a number of page users, all believed to be teenage boys. The school and the girl’s family only became aware of cyberbullying in January.
Lara Burns was a student at Maynooth Post Primary School. She committed suicide in late November 2012 at her family’s home, and after police investigations, it appeared that she was a victim of online bullying. However, Lara’s suicide was not the first; in fact, it was the third among young teens during the past year.
The recent tragedies surrounding Cyberbullying in Ireland include the heart-aching deaths of three young teenage girls: Lara Burns, (aged 12) in Co. Kildare, Erin Gallagher (aged 13) in Co Donegal and Ciara Pugsley (aged 15) in Co Leitrim.
The 13-year-old Donegal girl, Erin Gallagher, was found on October 27th, 2012, after telling friends that she was considering killing herself due to the abuse she was suffering, after being subjected to a bullying campaign on the controversial website, Ask.fm.
At the end of September 2012, 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley lost her life after being bullied by teens online. The pupil at St Clare’s Comprehensive in Manor-hamilton was abused by individuals on the Ask.fm social media website, which was set up to allow people to ask any user questions they wanted to be answered. Among the messages, Ciara received were that she was depressed to attract attention, that she was fat, and that she had no respect for herself.
The popular and well-regarded schoolgirl’s classmates only became aware of what happened after the 15-year-old went missing, as she was found in a wooded area near her home, and did not leave a note. However, one of the final questions asked on Ciara’s Ask.fm page was ‘Whats been up with u’ to which she poignantly replied, ‘U’ll see soon!’.
Cyberbullying in Ireland: Ask.fm, a Bullying Virtual Playground
While Ask.fm was set up for innocent purposes, to allow people to ask any member questions and seek advice on various topics, the latest tragedy has led to calls for it to be banned. There are several alleged links between this Latvian social media website and the suicides of teenagers over the past year. The site provides the shield of anonymous use and has no reporting procedures for people concerned about bullying.
However, within cyberbullying prevention efforts, Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald is now in contact with the EU and Latvian Governments over growing concerns about the site and whether it has developed into a sphere of bullying.
Cyberbullying in Ireland: The Role of the Gardaí
The Garda Síochána na hÉireann (or Guardians of the Peace of Ireland), more commonly referred to as the Gardaí, have made keen efforts when it comes to the combating and preventing cyberbullying.
Titled “Connect with Respect”, the Gardaí have presented this new module of the Garda Schools Programme as part of Safer Internet Day – the “Watch your Space” public awareness campaign, and the Garda program over the course of February and March, aiming to change the attitude of bystanders to make them more likely to intervene positively and effectively in online bullying situations.
It also aims to help students to understand the effect of cyberbullying on different people and to recognize that it is not acceptable. A brief video showing a teenager who is the victim of cyberbullying was shown to pupils with post video discussion activity, where members of the Community Policing Unit discuss with students how to prevent this behaviour from occurring, in order to enable people to respond effectively if it does.
Cyberbullying in Ireland: ISPCC, Protection and Prevention
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) has been vocal about the risks to children online as well as offering support and guidance to young people and parents about how to navigate the online world safely. It compiled the Safe Click Code as a support and information guide for staying safe online, in addition to making several recommendations, such as introducing a “Panic” button on Facebook and similar social networking websites.
This is already in operation on Facebook UK which in conjunction with the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) has an application allowing young users to report worrying or inappropriate behaviour to child protection authorities. The CEOP’s application, called clickCEOP, is a link not only to the CEOP website but also to nine other different sources of help including Childline and Beatbullying.
Cyberbullying in Ireland: National Efforts
Irish Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, met with Facebook management to discuss online safeguards for children given recent concerns over cyber-bullying and internet safety. While she welcomed “the child-focused and user-friendly safeguards and supports which Facebook have put in place to protect children and respond to concerns over cyber-bullying and inappropriate online behaviour.”, she expressed her concern that certain other websites popular among Irish teenagers do not include the same safeguards, making specific reference to Ask.fm, and stating that her Department is to ask the Latvian authorities to investigate lack of safeguards applying to contentious ‘Ask.fm’ website.
Moreover, on January 29th, 2013, a new Action Plan on Bullying was launched. The plan sets out twelve actions to help prevent and tackle bullying in primary and second level schools. Among the twelve actions recommended by the working group were proposals to support a media campaign focused on cyberbullying specifically targeted at young people, as part of Safer Internet Day 2013, as well as establish a new national anti-bullying website.
In her speech at the Launch of the “Action Plan on Bullying” event in January 2013, the Minister stated that they are committed to developing a new National Framework for Anti-Bullying.” We will also provide a website which draws together some of the information available online to help parents, children and teachers. That provides, at a single click, the possible support to parents and young people – where parents can learn about Ask.fm, Facebook, Spillit and Twitter; and their privacy policies and settings”
Cyberbullying in Ireland: Stay Safe!
The Stay Safe program was introduced to primary schools in 1991 with the aim of providing a comprehensive school-based child protection program, which focused on providing teachers and parents with the knowledge, skills and understanding necessary to help protect children in their care, and equipping children with practical knowledge and skills to keep safe and seek help from a trusted adult about any worries they might have. While these same aims remain relevant, the changing risks that children face require changes in the Stay Safe program to ensure its continued relevance and efficacy.
Cyberbullying in Ireland: Legislative Concerns
The Department of Education’s anti-bullying policy, which governs bullying policies in the country’s schools, has not been updated since 1993 and doesn’t mention cyber-bullying. Furthermore, while Section 10 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 prohibits the harassment of a person “by any means” by “persistently following, watching, pestering, besetting or communicating with him or her”, there is no means to measure such manner of “persistence” in harassment.
Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte has said “there may be a gap” in legislation in Ireland governing social media, and that “defamation and harassment laws apply online in just the same way as they do offline”. While the Communications Regulation (Amendment) Act 2007 dealt with the use of the telephone system to send grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages, “for the purpose of causing annoyance, inconvenience, or needless anxiety to another person”, the law did not extend to social media. There appears to be a gap in the legislation relating to electronic communications infrastructure, he said, as there is no specific mechanism available to the Gardaí or the courts to deal with the type of difficulties Ireland has lately seen.
However, to combat the socially destructive phenomenon, some Irish senators want to stop trolls by creating a database of all Internet users’ names & IP addresses. In addition, The Law Reform Commission has been asked by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter to examine difficulties in prosecuting cyberbullying. Mr Shatter said he was aware of growing public concern about the issue, especially after a number of recent tragic cases. Heightened public awareness could only contribute to the recognition that such behaviour was unacceptable in schools, in the workplace or any other place.
In conclusion, while home used to be the place a child seeks refuge from the outer world where traditional bullying takes place, cyberbullying is penetrative in its nature. It invades the brick-and-cement walls of home and into the very fragile mind of the child. Nevertheless, we are keeping our fingers crossed for the several efforts being made to transform the jelly-like out-of-hand form that cyber-bullying has recently taken into a rather eradicable one.