Violence among teenagers may be grabbing the headlines, but for many concerned with child protection it's virtual aggression that's the biggest emerging threat.
Cyberbullies use mobile phones or emails to send sexist, homophobic and racist messages, or they attack other differences - from physical and mental disabilities to victims' cultural or religious background, appearance, wealth or class. In some cases, bullies physically assault other children, then post images of fights online or distribute video recordings using text messages.
Caroline Cockerill, Symantec's internet safety advocate, is well aware of the problem. "Cyberbullies tend to use the same tactics as they do in the offline world," she says. "They torment other kids from a distance using email, websites, online games, instant messaging, blogs and community sites such as MySpace and chatrooms. Online taunts sting just like they do offline, but internet bullies can stay anonymous more easily."
The impact of cyberbullying on children can be huge. One pupil explains: "No one understood what I was going through. I didn't know who was sending me these messages and I felt powerless to know what to do."
There's no doubt that cyberbullying can be devastating, Cockerill observes. "Some bullies harass targets with a barrage of instant messages: 'Everyone hates you' or 'You're a loser'," she says. "Others create websites that mock others, impersonate their targets to post fake dating adverts or hack into their email accounts."
And it's not just children who get bullied. Teachers suffer too. "Students put a horrendous accusation about me on their website," one teacher told us. "Within hours it seemed that the whole school had read this message."
Educators have years of experience to call on when handling violent bullying, but social networks, the internet and mobile phones are harder to police. Because they're relatively new manifestations, there’s little available information to help teachers cope.
So what can be done to detect, monitor and act against the cyberbullies?
At a glance:
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.
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."
Next page: Social networking - the dangers
Sally-Ann Griffiths, Securus Software's education and child protection advisor, observes: "Many teachers feel they're on the back foot as pupils are more tech-savvy than they are. But once cyberbullying is identified, the core skills teachers already possess are equally useful with on- and offline bullies."
There are plenty of resources to help teachers, parents and children understand the internet and cyberbullying. But a better solution is for children to be educated to know what’s right and wrong, Fuller says.
It's a learning curve for everyone, and social-networking sites are attempting to improve awareness. According to a Bebo spokesperson, the site is ready to play its part to fight bullying. "Antisocial behaviour is an aspect of the society we live in," the spokesperson says.
"To help parents, teachers and young people navigate these issues online, we provide a series of safety educational materials. Internet users are not anonymous. Their activity creates a digital record of behaviour, which, should members breach our terms of service, can be used to assist investigations as required."
Bebo's free educational resources are based on up-to-date guidance and developed in collaboration with the groups listed above. Dr. Rachel O'Connell, Bebo's chief safety officer, hopes the resources will help adults and teachers develop an understanding of social sites, so they can educate youngsters in how to use them safely and positively.
The popular video-sharing website YouTube is no stranger to intimidating materials appearing online through its service, with 6,000 hours of additional content uploaded to the service every minute. In early November the company introduced a much-improved flagging system to help users police inappropriate content.
Flagged messages are sent to a 24-hour response team, which will check the complaint, vet the video and then take offending clips offline if necessary. In cases where YouTube's team does not withdraw a clip, teachers and parents can use the support forums to request its removal.
But with pupils still habitually making personal details available online, and with educators reporting that social-networking sites are still slow to deal with reported instances of inappropriate behaviour, the problem remains critical.
Technology could be the solution as well as the problem. Many schools use blocking software – from the parental controls in modern operating systems and web browsers to dedicated internet-blocking packages such as Cyber Patrol and Net Nanny.
Critics point out that stringent censorship of terms and URLs can filter out acceptable educational resources. They argue that a better solution is to promote a sense of responsibility in children, while monitoring the decisions they make. Monitoring software offers pupils the freedom they need to make their own mistakes, while enabling schools to effectively police unacceptable behaviour.
These arguments are gaining recognition. October 2007 saw Forensic Software's Policy Central Enterprise computer usage monitoring software rolled out as part of London Grid For Learning, an education-focused initiative. This software, which monitors computer activity on the web, instant messaging, email and other applications, is being put in place to support antibullying operations across 2,600 London schools.
Policy Central is a customisable system that's designed to let educators enforce acceptable-use policies for all computer users in a school. It can monitor for various kinds of unacceptable behaviour, including sexist, racist and homophobic remarks. The software will watch for misuse, then track, monitor and keep a record of the incident. It’s currently available for Windows only, but similar products for monitoring Windows Mobile clients and Macs are in the pipeline.
It’s a powerful solution. It doesn’t just watch information transmitted using the internet - it also monitors all screen content and keyboard activity, and can check compressed files and data held on external drives, including USB flash drives. The software refers to libraries of keywords related to bullying (those alluding to pornography, swearing and violence, for example) and allows teachers to define specific words and phrases to watch out for.
Next page: Monitoring, privacy and a change of culture
This raises a number of privacy concerns, of course, but the software doesn’t keep records of ‘acceptable’ PC use - it only moves into action when a violation takes place. It then compiles records of inappropriate behaviour, including screenshots.
"Rather than blocking sites, our product's approach is to monitor usage," says Forensic Software sales director Marie Bailey. "This means you can educate pupils about why they shouldn’t do what they've done. A monitoring approach helps you work out why students are doing what they are doing - perhaps some violations come from a time when a new teacher is taking a lesson, which helps to identify a training need."
Another vendor, Securus Software, offers the Securus monitoring system. Like Policy Central, Securus watches for inappropriate words and phrases, both using the internet and working offline in an application such as Word. This system captures screenshots of every violation, along with details of the user, workstation, time, date and nature of the incident. Evidence is stored on a proprietary server, in order to keep it pristine.
Sally-Ann Griffiths explains: "In the old days it was about Web 1.0 technology, controlling where children go. Today's children are digital natives and use the web for much more complex things: social networks or online games. Blocking and filtering wraps them in a bubble, but they can still find what they need using a mate’s PC."
Unlike blocking solutions, monitoring lets concerned adults identify and react to inappropriate behaviour, offering a chance to explain why such abuse is unacceptable. It also offers an early-warning system.
"In one incident, a teacher suspected a pupil was being bullied though the child had said nothing. Monitoring proved bullying was taking place, when and where it occurred and who had been doing it," Griffiths says.
Technology plays its part in dealing with the symptoms, Fuller stresses, but a change in attitudes to bullying is also overdue. Parents must also seize responsibility to tackle inappropriate uses of technology.
"We must create a culture in which bullying is recognised as the problem it is," he says. "Teachers must teach children how to protect themselves online, children must understand the etiquette of behaviour and parents must understand the way their children use IT."
Next page: Top 10 tips for avoiding cyberbullying
TOP 10 TIPS FOR AVOIDING CYBERBULLYING
Much of the security advice we provide is equally applicable to anyone concerned about or already subjected to unwanted and malicious contact. These tips offer common-sense advice.
* DON'T RESPOND TO MALICIOUS TEXTS OR EMAILS Letting someone know you're rattled will only encourage them.
* DON’T BELIEVE EVERYTHING YOU SEE OR READ It's all too easy for someone to pretend to be someone else online. Someone may claim to be 15, but that doesn’t mean they are. Keep your own profile vague and assume everyone else’s is also partially fictional.
* SAVE THE EVIDENCE If someone says something untoward online or via an email or text message, keep a copy. Instant-message conversations and Facebook comments can be saved as screengrabs using the Print Screen button on your PC keyboard. Keep a diary of any unwanted contact, recording the form and nature of it. This can be useful when trying to establish who’s doing the bullying (if the onslaught is anonymous) and can also be useful should any disciplinary or criminal action become necessary.
* REPORT CYBERBULLYING Don't suffer in silence. Tell someone you're being bullied - your teacher or employer is obliged to do something about it. You may even need to get the police involved.
* RING THE CHANGES If the bullying is happening by text or phone call, tell your operator and they may be able to block the caller or change your phone number. Improve your email security.
* KEEP YOUR PASSWORDS SAFE Some bullying can take the form of impersonation. If someone pretends to be you and sends defamatory emails, insults friends or colleagues or otherwise acts in your name without your knowledge or permission, it will aggrieve both you and others. Have a secure password that differs from site to site and from email login to email login, and change it regularly. This way you’ll avoid being hacked and someone snooping on you with a view to discovering personal information they could use against you or to spam others in your name.
* NEVER GIVE OUT PERSONAL DETAILS ONLINE Be wary of anyone soliciting personal information from you. As well as leaving you vulnerable to identity thieves, personal information you divulge can be turned against you, whether it’s a clue to your whereabouts or your likes and dislikes.
* NEVER SEND A MESSAGE IN ANGER You may be upset, but it’s better to turn off your phone, email or web browser and take some time out to calm down than to respond if someone tries to rile you. Easier said than done, of course, but it may also stop the situation from escalating.
* DON’T OPEN MESSAGES FROM STRANGERS If you’re not expecting an email message and it's not from someone you know and doesn’t appear from the subject line or other details to be a business email, send it straight to the junk folder. A cyberbully may use different email accounts or methods to contact you, particularly if one method of communication, such as instant messaging or sending Facebook messages, has been denied to them.
* NEVER ARRANGE TO MEET A STRANGER A face-to-face confrontation with an unsavoury character is not a good idea. Nor should you arrange to meet someone about whom you have only very sketchy, possibly unreliable, information gleaned online.