The all too real dan­ger in a vir­tual world

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

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

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