The Challenge of Tackling Cyberbullying and Sexting in Schools
What do we mean by Cyberbullying and Sexting?
Whilst technology offers many opportunities to us, there are risks associated with being online and these risks present challenges for children and teenagers in particular. There are many studies, including CyberSafeIreland’s recent report for Safer Internet Day 2018, that indicate that many young children are signed up to a range of social media and instant messaging apps and that such apps are a key source of communication, e.g. 69% of 8 – 13 year old children have a social media presence. There are a number of risks associated with the use of such sites and these include cyberbullying and sexting, which I will explain further below.
Cyberbullying is increasingly common because of the accessibility of devices and the number of children online. It is an electronic form of bullying or harassment. The immediate effects are as much psychological as physical. It can be instigated by one or a group of individuals, and inflicted upon one or a group of individuals. A notable development in cyberbullying is that the sharing of videos, posting of hurtful/abusive statements and spreading of rumours on social media sites are now more common forms. Cyberbullying, like traditional bullying, can lead to extreme stress, isolation, anxiety, depression and in some instances suicide. Exacerbating factors are that, unlike traditional forms of bullying, cyberbullying can take place at any time and can be difficult to escape given the pervasiveness of technology. Empathy can also be a challenge as eye-contact is often absent from online interaction and it is difficult to gauge the impact of words and actions online.
Sexting is the sending, receiving, and also forwarding of messages (usually text or instant messages) that are sexually explicit. These messages often involve images, which can also be used as a form of blackmail (online extortion). A more recent development and an ongoing challenge comes from apps like Snapchat, where users send images rather than texts only. Snapchat is an example of an app where the images sent only remain visible on the screen for a number of seconds (depending on your settings), which might lead users into a false sense of security in terms of sharing more explicit images whereas in reality it is possible to screenshot or “capture” these images permanently. A study by Zeeko, in NovaUCD, found that out of 3,231 secondary school pupils, 13% had sent a nude or semi-nude photo of themselves, and that 15% had showed a friend or shared nude or semi-nude content that was sent by someone else, while 14% sexted someone who wasn’t their partner.
2017 saw the introduction of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017, which was brought in to update and harmonise the law in this area. It states that a ‘child’ is under the age of 18 and it addresses online child sexual exploitation by making it an offence for people to use information and communication technology to communicate “with another person (including a child) for the purpose of facilitating the sexual exploitation of a child”.
The Role of School Policies: A Schoolwide Approach
Schools in many cases can find it difficult to deal with cyberbullying, as it often takes place outside of school property and school hours, and it occurs on private electronic devices. The Department of Education guidelines have advised that schools need to include cyberbullying as part of their anti-bullying policy. Under the Education (Welfare) Act, 2000 all schools are required to have in place a code of behaviour. They have also advised that support services should also be available to victims of cyberbullying, and that the culture in schools should be geared toward empowering students to be able to get assistance and solve issues effectively rather than pressurising victims to be vocal about incidents. The research on the frequency of cyberbullying in schools may not be totally accurate, as students may not always be willing to admit that they have been a victim of targeted harassment and others may not be aware that the behaviour constitutes cyberbullying.
Some schools have identified a definition of what sexting is, usually described as: “the sharing of sexual text, video and photographic content using mobile phone, apps, social networking services and other internet technologies”, as well as informing students and parents for example that “all incidents involving creating, storing or sharing of explicit text, images and/or video of children under the age of 18 years will be reported as an incident to the Gardaí and Túsla and the State Claims Agency”. This is often the extent to which sexting is addressed in school policies, and it is understandably a very uncomfortable issue to raise, for teachers, parents and students alike. While sexting is more relevant to secondary schools, primary schools should not overlook potential challenges here. Some commentators have pointed out the need for a more evolved Relationships and Sexualities Education (RSE) curriculum, which considers the emotional complexities involved in this area. This will be a key factor in facing these online challenges going forward, irrespective of legal changes.
Whilst sexting and cyberbullying clearly represent challenges in terms of children’s use of the Internet, they also underline the importance of equipping children with the skills to manage their online lives in a safe, smart and responsible way. The Department of Education provides information for parents on safe internet use through Webwise.ie. In addition, The Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 represents a possible major legal shift in this area. However, the pervasiveness of technology in children’s lives is ever growing. Therefore, educational programmes that address digital literacy from a young age will become increasingly important, both in addressing these challenges and providing a safer and ultimately more enjoyable cyber platform.
Cyberbullying in Schools Guidance & Resources for Management May 2013 http://www.etbi.ie/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/etbi_cyber_bullying_guidelines.pdf
Ethan Shattock (Guest Blogger)
Ethan Shattock has a Masters of International Business Law Graduate from Maynooth University. He regularly blogs about politics, social issues and religion.