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How to Prevent Cyber Bullying

School-age children bullying each other by mobile phone is a facet of modern life we could all do without. What tends to happen is that a group of weak-minded individuals will be fed false information about their intended victim and be tricked in to bombarding them with unpleasant messages. One-to-one bullying doesn't really work; the objective of the instigator is to isolate the victim, so tricking their associates in to joining in is the best strategy.

Technology

In recent years this phenomenon has moved on from SMS to systems such as Instagram, Facebook, WhatsApp, Snapchat where group messaging is more convenient (for the bullies). 

However, parents can fight back. You can just ban such applications from your child's computer, tablet or phone, but as these are part of modern life you'd be throwing the baby out with the bathwater if you did. There's a much better solution - simply have family accounts instead. They may be used mostly by your children, but everything can still be read by you on your PC, and if things get out of hand, you can step in.

Victims of bullying tend to "freak out" when they receive a snot-o-gram from their tormentors, which is awkward if you need evidence to take to the school authorities. With a joint account you have the added advantage of maintaining a good evidence trail, should it be needed.

Whisper and Secret appear to be explicitly designed for the purpose and should be banned from your children's phone, and Snapchat causes problems because you need technology to log what's happening.

Use of freemail services such as Hotmail and Gmail should also be discouraged. Although these have excellent monitoring facilities if you choose to enable them (such as forwarding everything received to an MX elsewhere for archiving), IP address obfuscation makes tracking the miscreants more difficult without a court order.

Forms of cyber-bullying

Cyberbullying can take various forms, the most common being harassment and libel/slander. By spreading false stories about the victim the bully can co-opt others in to doing their dirty-work for them, and it can be harder to identify the ringleader. Bullies can also upset their victims by impersonating them on-line, or by publishing personal details.

Straightforward harassment or cyber-stalking seems to be less common with teenagers as it's more one-to-one, and it's harder to isolate the victim. What's more likely is that an on-line group will be set up with the specific aim of not allowing the victim in.

And not forgetting good-old blackmail.

Legal remedies

If things get heavy, your first port-of-call should be the school. All state schools in the UK are required to have robust anti-bullying policies, and they will take action if the bully and the victim attend the same institution. This is covered by the School Standards and Framework Act 1998. Private schools are covered by the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2003, although with less scrutiny, I have known many sweep the problems under the carpet.

If there's no school involvement, or you need to escalate the matter, there's the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 and the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 which deal with harassment (obviously) and threatening behaviour respectively. There's also the Telecommunications Act 1984, which makes threatening (and anonymous) electronic communications a criminal offence. There's also the Malicious Communications Act 2003, which makes it a criminal offence to send “…by means of a public electronic communications network, a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. The police, however, tend to like prosecuting under the Harassment Act, and do so to good effect.

When Chris Grayling was the Justice Secretary in 2014 came down heavily against cyber-bullying, with plans to increase the six-month prison sentence to two years. Following recent government upheavals, I encourage everyone to contact the new Secretary of State, Liz Truss, to progress the plans.

However, with the perpetrators often being under the age of criminal responsibility, it's the parents who'd end up being nicked if their wayward children. The ASBO replacement in the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 has yet to be tested in this respect, as far as I know.

But most important...

But the most important thing is to have good relationship with your children. You want them to feel safe, but not spied on. That way they'll alert you to any dodgy-looking emails, which will save you having to read a load of teenage dross every day.

Bullies rely on manipulating those around them to isolate their victim. If they're doing it through an account that's read by other people, isolation isn't possible. The victim is then free to laugh at them - and if it gets too bad, the bullies will end up isolated themselves - down at the police station.