When the government commissioned some research into how widespread cyberbullying had become, it discovered that more than a third of 12- to 15-year-olds had been targeted by bullies using technology to get at them.
From happy-slapping to online stalking
The findings were sufficient to prompt the Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to set up a Safe to Learn campaign in partnership with a range of organisations and experts. YouTube, Bebo and MySpace are involved.
The campaign states that school governors and headteachers have a duty to monitor all electronic communications that occur on school premises or take place as part of school activities offsite. Teachers, meanwhile, are urged to take a firm stand against pupils who use mobile phones and the internet to bully other children and teachers. They're being given new powers to confiscate mobile phones and are being equipped with the information they need to get offending material removed from websites - including social networks.
Ed Balls, the secretary of state for children, schools and families, says: "The vast majority of schools are safe environments to learn in. However, we know that behaviour, particularly bullying, is a key concern for parents. Bullying of any kind is unacceptable.
"Cyberbullying is a particularly insidious type of bullying as it can follow young people wherever they go. The anonymity that it seemingly affords to the perpetrator can make it even more stressful for the victim.
"Bystanders can inadvertently become perpetrators - simply by passing on videos or images, they are playing a part."
Teachers can watch for cyberbullying by going undercover. "MySpace advised us to have an undercover presence on its site," says one teacher. "We do this, and monitor the service. I've noticed a lack of education in how to safely use these services. Kids put their mobile number on their MySpace profile, for example. They don't understand the risks. PCs have for so long been about spreadsheets - the way we teach computer skills now doesn't promote online safety."
The teacher explained that some people are perfectly at home using technology and comfortable with controlling the information they share, but others have used technology for a fairly limited period. For some people, there may be a knowledge gap.
Education for all
Teachers, parents and children must get web-wise. Simon Fuller is managing director of Grid Learning, which runs Grid Club, an online learning resource for five- to 12-year-olds. It’s designed to support the National Curriculum in an entertaining way. He’s also the man behind Cyber Cafe, which teaches children how to stay safe online. "Children learn how to engage with this wonderful, positive technology and don't feel the need to use it negatively," he says.
Fuller rejects the notion that technology is the problem, urging a much larger response from government, teachers and parents. "Technology moves on. We need to keep up," he says. "You can’t blame schools for cyberbullying; they are given a curriculum they have to teach. Education departments need to figure out how to teach cybersafety as part of that curriculum."
Children want to learn, too. Cyber Cafe attracts up to a million visits each month.
"We have to look at ourselves and the world we’re in," Fuller adds. "I think we’ve been remiss in not spending enough time helping teachers, parents and children engage in dialogue about these things.
"The issue is people, not technology. Parents have an incredibly important role to play. They need to speak with their children to find out what they are doing with their mobiles and computers."
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