The all too real danger in a virtual world
Iwas a teacher for 17 years, so I am no stranger to the cut and thrust of school life both in and outside the playground. But cyberbullying is something altogether different: this is the explosion of a new and insidious form of harassment, often amounting to psychological torture, and it drives teenagers to suicide.
Whilst researching my new novel, The Things We Know Now, I was shocked to learn of the exponential growth among young teenagers of cyberbullying. I began to dig deeper. As I dug, I learned that more than one in four young teenagers had been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated, either by another individual or a group, through the use of mobile phones or the internet. That’s an awful lot of our children.
I learned that the abuse took many forms: text messages; hurtful comments left on social networking sites such as Little Gossip and Facebook; private images that had been photoshopped and displayed for all to see. The most frightening thing, I learned, is the relentlessness of the bullies, and the fact that there is no escape from them.
Bullying is, of course, nothing new. It happened at the school that I attended, and it happened at the schools at which I taught in Ireland.
Now, though, it is no longer necessary to be in the bullies’ physical presence in order to be bullied: instead, their presence is a constant one, 24-7, thanks to modern technology and young people’s obsession with their mobile phones.
As young teachers in the 1980s, my cohort had some training in how to spot the signs of bullying among our pupils. How, though, can today’s teachers spot bullying that goes on via a mobile phone hidden under a desk, or used late at night in the privacy of a youngster’s bedroom? Yet the suffering inflicted by the cyber-bullies of this virtual world is itself all too real. Of the children and young people targeted, as many as five per cent turned to self-harm as a means of relief, according to the research I‘ve studied. Three per cent had attempted suicide. Too many of that three per cent had been successful, youngsters such as 14-year-old Hannah Smith, who was found hanged in her bedroom last month after she received abusive messages on the social networking website Ask.fm. She is the fourth teenager in Britain and Ireland whose suicide has been linked to bullying “trolls” on that particular website. So what are we going to do about it?
The Secretary of State for Education has suggested in recent weeks that web bullying will not be solved by putting curbs on the internet, but by “fixing what’s in people’s hearts”. Michael Gove said: “I think part of that comes from making sure that we have the right behaviour and discipline policies in schools and that we teach our children the right values.”
It’s a lovely notion to fix what’s in people’s hearts, but I’m not sure that it is a practical response. It’s like so many aspects of human behaviour that inflict harm on other people: we shouldn’t speed; we shouldn’t drink alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car; we shouldn’t drive recklessly. But people do, every day, even while knowing in their hearts that others – and they themselves – might get hurt in the process.
Our altruistic inner selves should provide the motivation to behave in a caring manner, but in reality, most people are more motivated to behave by the threat of getting caught if they don’t.
What we really need to change is the current culture of acceptance, tolerance and helplessness in the face of this damage being done to our youngsters by technology. And, I might add, the damage being done by the sort of vile, hate-filled, antiwomen outpourings found online.
It is not good enough for ministers like Mr Gove to dodge the question of using the law to tackle the modern curse. I’m still fascinated by another recent change in culture brought about by the law. In Ireland a ban on smoking in public places was introduced. Anecdotal evidence pointed to massive resistance, particularly in rural areas. There were tales of smokers up in arms in rural pubs, of angry pub owners, of an attitude of “damn the nanny state”. But the reality was just one case of defiance before the courts. It resulted in a large fine. The attitude of zero tolerance demonstrated by the judge meant that was it. We had a smoke-free country overnight.
So how does this apply to leads, the rest of society will follow. What lies at the heart of cyberbullying is an absence of empathy, an inability to feel, or to identify with, the hurt being inflicted on another. Once that lack of empathy is encouraged, sanctioned and protected by the cloak of anonymity that social media confers (even though every user can, ultimately, be traced, if there is a will and resources), we are confronted with the nasty, brutish sides of ourselves.
I’m not saying that social media is evil: of course it is not. Social media is a powerful tool of communication. But evil resides in the ways that some people choose to exploit it. Paramount among these is the abuse of anonymity. Studies show that all of us (not just teenagers), once we feel sure that we are and will remain anonymous, will say things to another human being that we would not dream of saying face to face. Being cut off from the discomfort on another’s face, the verbal and non-verbal cues that something is at best inappropriate, at worst hurtful and damaging, erodes empathy. Social media distances the way we see others: look at the way social media language has become distant from its original meaning. “Like” does not necessarily mean “like”, nor does “friend” mean “friend”.
It brings me back to that very uncomfortable truth about human nature: that the fear of being held accountable by law is often what motivates our good behaviour, not the common good, not altruism, not a finely-tuned moral compass. Take away that fear, as social media currently does, allow anonymous users to participate in mob rule, and the appalling effects are what we are seeing today – teenagers driven to suicide.
The ThingsWeKnow Now by Catherine Dunne, (Macmillan, RRP £7.99), is available to order from Telegraph Books at £7.99 + £1.10p&p. Call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk