Half of UK teens say bullying is worse online

The rise of social media has created new opportunities for those who wish to make their peers feel small. Is online technology bad for today’s teenagers? Or can it also be used for good?

Carney Bonner was 14 years old when he began to receive nasty messages from an anonymous Facebook account. ‘You’re nothing,’ they said. ‘You don’t mean anything to anyone.’

He was a loud and outgoing student, and at first he brushed the messages off. ‘I thought it was a joke,’ he admitted. But as the abuse continued, it began to eat away at his confidence. When he received a message telling him to kill himself, it was the final straw. He began to self-harm. It was only when a friend saw his injuries and took him to see the school counsellor that things began to improve. ‘It was like learning to walk,’ he said. ‘I had to work towards being myself again.’

Bonner’s story has a happy ending: he is now studying at the University of Gloucestershire, campaigning to end cyberbullying and mental health stigma, and says he aims to be the UK’s first black prime minister.

But not everyone is so lucky. Research has found that around half of youth suicides in the UK are linked to bullying. And a survey by the Vodafone Foundation discovered that one in five young people have suffered online abuse, while over half said cyberbullying was worse than face-to-face abuse.

Charities and campaigners explain that the anonymous, 24/7 nature of social media can make bullying worse for young people — but technology is also a useful way of fighting back.

In response to their research, Vodafone last month released a series of emojis to help teenagers support each other when they encounter cyberbullying. The psychology professor Dacher Keltner explained that images can be a more ‘powerful’ way of showing sympathy and compassion during hard times.

It is clearly not a matter of ‘better’ or ‘worse’, others reply. Technology does not have an essential ‘goodness’. Just like writing or money, it is simply a tool of modern life. It is the way we choose to use it that gives it any value at all.

Tangled web

Mobile phones and the internet have made life far worse for teenagers, say some. Bullying no longer ends at the school gates; for some people it can feel almost impossible to escape, and the potentially sinister nature of anonymous accounts makes the experience even scarier. Online technology is damaging young people’s wellbeing — it’s time to log off and reconnect with the ‘real world’.

But many argue that online communities can be a refuge for those going through difficulties. If there is no one in that ‘real world’ teenagers feel they can talk to, they are more likely to find support from strangers on the internet, especially on blogging sites like tumblr. And if things get critical, there are advice websites and helplines which might just save their life. The online world is crucial.

You Decide

  1. Is bullying worse when it happens online?
  2. Has technology made life better or worse for teenagers in the 21st century?

Activities

  1. Design your own emoji to help tackle cyberbullying and present it to the rest of the class.
  2. Create a leaflet which offers advice to those affected by cyberbullying.

Some People Say...

“Social media should be banned for anyone under 18.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m worried about cyberbullying.
There are lots of ways to protect yourself online. Avoid adding people you don’t know, and make sure you turn on privacy settings so that your posts are not public — or at least don’t post personal details to public accounts. Make sure you learn how to block and report abusive accounts, just in case.
Am I a cyberbully?
We hope not! But it’s important to be careful about your behaviour online. It can feel like a more abstract space, where words matter less than they would in real life. But the opposite is true — without body language, you cannot tell how your words affect those reading them, or whether a joke has been understood. And it’s also possible for the ‘wrong’ people to see the things you have written. Even private messages can be screencapped.

Word Watch

Self-harm
This can include cutting, biting, hitting or burning yourself — anything which causes physical harm to your own body. A study by the World Health Organisation in 2014 found that around one in five 15-year-olds in England admitted to self-harm.
Cyberbullying
Cyberbullying is carried out online or through mobile phones. It does not always involve abusive messages — sometimes it may be spreading photographs without your permission, creating fake profiles in your name, or any other personal attack which makes you uncomfortable.
Youth suicides
Statistics from a report by Beatbullying in 2010.
Vodafone Foundation
The global development charity run by Vodafone. It aims to use mobile technology to improve lives, and pledged to donate £100,000 to anti-bullying charities after the results of its survey were released.
Emojis
The emojis include holding hands, hugged hearts, and a face surrounded by friends. They were developed by psychologists and anti-bullying charities, and tested by teenagers.

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