Cyberbullying – anonymity and other challenges for parents

Sadly the last few days have seen an increase in media enquiries and media activity across the UK about bullying and online bullying, following the tragic suicide of Hannah Smith. We have contributed to this as best we can at respectme; sharing our understanding, our approach to anti-bullying and our resources wherever we can.

I have written before on this blog about online bullying and have attached copies of a briefing we’ve developed around this. Both have been well read and shared across the world. I do feel though that it is relevant to share some thinking on what has been happening recently, and specifically about anonymity online and websites like Ask.FM and our reaction to them.

Some of the behaviour we have been reading about in the media from young people towards their peers is very concerning; it can be cruel, hurtful and read by hundreds of others across the world in a short space of time. And yet, young people still want to be involved in these online social spaces. 

Social websites that get demonised in the press develop a reputation, and the behaviour of those who take part in these sites may well reflect this.  But behaviour will be erratic and, in time, may settle down and be more self-regulated.  If sites can show that their code of conduct is implemented then behaviour is more likely to fall into line with this – if abusive and hateful comments disappear and users leave or change – it becomes evident to users that there are boundaries on this particular site.

Of course people who provide on-line platforms must do so responsibly.  They must create environments that are safe, where it is easy to report abusive behaviour – just as we would expect of anyone providing any other social space to children and young people! Whether it is a drop-in centre or a social networking site – have they assessed the risks and what have they done to minimise them?

The issue of anonymity has been central to many discussions and concerns about Ask.FM in particular. Anonymity does provide cover for people to act in a way they may not do if they had to use their own name – but not always – there is no shortage of abusive posts online and the name and face of the person doing this is very public!

It should be noted though that users can go into their privacy settings in Ask.Fm and change them to disable anonymous questions, so the possibility to remove anonymous posts on your page exists, yet few young people choose this option. Even fewer parents are aware it exists. Perhaps it should be the default setting, but default settings are mainly still based on what gives those who design and manage sites the most useful information to sell stuff to you – not to make sure you are as safe as possible.  And while this attitude is changing, parents especially should never assume that default settings are the ‘safest’ option.

But parents cannot abdicate responsibility to these platforms.  They need to know what websites their children are going to; Are they safe?  How do they respond to abuse they might receive?  Do they look at the websites their children want to sign up to? Do they discuss privacy settings? This takes time and families are busy, but it’s the most effective way of creating a safer environment and ensuring young people have the skills and knowledge to manage themselves within it.

Do they discuss expectations?  Expectations around how they speak to other people?  Or whether they copy, retweet or ‘like’ nasty comments made about others, and what might that mean? What will the consequences of their behaviour be if they bully or harass others online?

It is vital that we remember that bullying is about relationships; about how we relate to each other and how those interactions are managed.  Are they managed respectfully or not? It is not Ask.FM and other similar sites that are being hurtful and nasty; it’s some of the people who use them.

We must focus on equipping young people with the skills to conduct themselves online in a more respectful manner; the skills to manage these environments safely, and to develop their confidence and abilities to negotiate relationships and problems.  But we also have to equip parents with the knowledge and understanding about how these sites work; how to make them safe and, most importantly, how to talk to their children about using them.

Most parents want to be able to respond effectively and give the right advice, so they need to connect with their children and know about the places they go online. No amount of filtering software or firewalls will ever do more than a parent understanding what Ask.FM or Instagram actually is and does, or how to make sure it is safe.

Talking and writing about this is my job, but I am also the father of three children.  They are all at different levels, but each of them explores and uses cyberspace as part of their social circle and when they connect with friends and family. If I may, I will share an example of the challenges and practical difficulties many parents will face.

My son, after much pleading, got X Box Live for Christmas last year. For those of you who are not familiar with this, it is an enormously popular way for boys particularly to begin to use the internet and connect with other people. This internet connection allows users to buy and download gaming ‘stuff’ online and play with their friends in real time – so my son can now play a game of Fifa 12 with his cousin in another country, while chatting away. There are many parental settings on this that don’t  allow him to chat or connect with people he does not know, nor can he connect with anyone without my log in, which he does not have. I also get emailed updates about his activity – and so far, so good.

The thing is though – setting this up took over two hours on Christmas day – and it was very frustrating! I needed two email addresses for me – one to register and one for updates – a separate new email for my son and three passwords – all very different of course – billing details, credit card information, activation codes needing emailed and re-re-entered  and so on.

I could easily see how after an hour a parent might just say ‘do you know what – here is my email address and date of birth, please use it wisely’  – meaning no game or age restrictions would be in place and an open door to the internet and all that that brings would have been there for him.

Sadly for my son, his Dad has a job that means I really need to do what I say, and advise other to do!

In relation to Ask.FM I am not going to join in calls to ‘ban this sick filth’ just yet, but there is a lot of learning for the people who run and moderate this site. They need to demonstrate that they take abusive behaviour seriously and act on reports, that they can engage with parents, young people and regulators effectively.
Brian Donnelly

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