Durban – Cyberbullying is rampant in the “virtual world”, and the phenomenon of children harassing children through the internet will come under the spotlight this week.
The effects of cyberbullying on children will be one of the issues tackled during Child Protection Week, which runs from Monday until Sunday.
In 2009 UK teenager Keely Houghton became the first person in Britain to be sentenced for cyberbullying. Houghton, 18, was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment after pleading guilty to harassment. She cyberbullied an 18-year-old girl for four years and threatened to kill her.
Although there has been less focus on cyberbullying here, a study by South African consumer insights company, Pondering Panda, found that 57 percent of 2 064 pupils over the age of 13 had been bullied in some way.
A study conducted in Port Elizabeth among 1 594 primary and high school pupils indicated that 36 percent had experienced cyberbullying.
And this is not a new phenomenon. Four years ago, a pilot study conducted by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) found 46.8 percent of the 1 726 South African respondents between the ages of 12 and 24 years surveyed had experienced some form of cyberbullying.
However, despite the prevalence of cyberbullying, it often goes unreported because of the embarrassment or difficulty tracking the culprit.
Bryan Adam, a counsellor at a Durban boys’ school, said parents needed to realise that they should be checking their children’s phones and internet use regularly.
He urged parents not to allow children to keep cellphones with them at night.
“After a certain time, the phone must be out the bedroom. One reason is that they’ll text each other at 2am and 3am, which interrupts sleep. The other is that, if cyberbullying is happening, there’s access to the victim 24 hours a day.”
Childline’s national executive officer, Dumisile Nala, said parents needed to familiarise themselves with the technology their children were using.
“When buying your child a phone, ensure you understand the technology and know how it works. Make the rules about cellphone use clear,” said Nala.
In a paper by the CJCP entitled Legal Responses to Cyberbullying and Sexting, author Charmain Badenhorst echoed Nala’s sentiments, saying parents were battling to deal with children’s behaviour because they were unfamiliar with the technology.
“Cyberbullying is rampant in this virtual world where perpetrators may lose sight of the fact that they are causing harm to a ‘real’ person,” she said.
“The psychological impact of cyberbullying is often more traumatising than physical bullying because of the extreme public nature of the bullying.”
Badenhorst cited anxiety, depression and even suicide as results of cyberbullying.
According to Childline SA’s information booklet on internet safety, the child’s right to privacy and freedom of expression stops when there is a real risk of harm.
It advises parents to:
l Make sure the child’s computer is in a room used by the family and not in the child’s bedroom.
l Programme filtering software to block access to websites that contain material to which a child should not be exposed.
l Make sure they check their child’s e-mails, and that the child knows they will do so.
According to Stopcyberbullying, a US prevention programme, there are direct and indirect attacks to look out for.
Direct attacks include stealing passwords and assuming a person’s identity; internet polling such as “who’s hot and who’s not?”; sending porn or junk mail to another child or creating websites dedicated to ridiculing children.
The website, created in response to the rise in cyber-bullying cases in America, states that cyberbullying by proxy is the most dangerous kind of bullying and includes things such as “warning” or “notify wars”.
“Kids click on the warning or notify buttons on their IM (instant message) screen or e-mail or chat screens, and alert the ISP or service provider that the victim has done something that violates their rules,” the site says.
“If the victim receives enough warnings or notifications, they can lose their account.
“The service providers are aware of this abuse, and often check to see if the warnings were justified. But all the cyberbully has to do is make the victim angry enough to say something rude or hateful back. Then they warn them, making it look like the victim had started it.
“In this case, the ISP or service provider is the innocent accomplice of the cyberbully.” – Daily News