A recent youth-led study commissioned by The Diana Award and supported by the Open University's Children’s Research Centre revealed that cyber-bullying is on the increase and now affects more than a third of young people. What makes this report different is that young people have been involved in the design and operation of the study throughout.
The journey started two years ago when the Diana Award approached the Children’s Research Centre to provide research training and support to a group of Diana anti-bullying award holders who wanted to research cyber-bullying issues from a young person perspective. They felt that adults were not always best placed to gather information from young people.
Young people had a more nuanced understanding of the issues and could use this knowledge to inform an effective research design. After their training, the youth steering group put together a questionnaire which was sent out to over 1,500 young people in two age brackets, Year 8 students (12-13 years) and Year 10 students (14-15 years) in nine regions of England via the Diana Award schools network and online surveys.
Additionally, young people conducted four focus groups involving 31 peers. The young people wanted to target two age groups to see what impact, if any, age had on their experiences.
Cyber-bullying on the increase
The Report showed that cyber-bullying is on the increase in England and affects around a third of young people. There are a number of factors that make cyber-bullying more difficult to detect and young people indicated that the rapid pace of technology advancement meant that methods of bullying could be constantly re-invented.
A significant difference between cyber and more traditional forms of bullying is that it happens at irregular intervals compared to the sustained, escalating nature of other types of bullying. It is easy for bullies to be anonymous in cyber space. They can even take on a different identity as an Avatar thus divorcing themselves from the nastiness of the bullying behaviour by attributing it to a make-believe character.
When you get to that age, you can have your own Avatar and be whoever you want to be, but it means that anything can happen...you become a different person.
Abusive emails (26 per cent) and text messages (24 per cent) are the most prominent method of cyber bullying. Social networking sites are fertile ground for victim humiliation and posting of happy slapping videos. Bullies were able to set up hate websites which included death threats and led to many young people self-harming or attempting suicide.
A big issue is the under reporting and under recording of cyber bullying partly because young people have grown to accept a certain level of cyber bullying as peer culture and were not aware of how easily this could switch to more sinister behaviour.
Age is significant. Overall, young people’s risk status differs with age. 40 per cent of the older youth are at risk compared to 35 per cent of the younger age group. For example 19 per cent of 14-15 year-olds had experienced happy slapping and hate websites compared to 14 per cent of 12-13 year-olds.
Home is not my castle
Perhaps the most disturbing finding from the report is that young people felt least safe in their own homes. The prevalence of social networks and smart phones made cyber bullying difficult to escape.
Parents were often not knowledgeable enough to understand the hazards and internet company safeguards were ineffective:
Companies like Google and Orange look like they are doing something about it, but there are newer ways to bully...you have to see what the latest technology is.
28 per cent of young people had not informed anyone of their experience. Of those who did confide in anyone, they chose to inform friends and family. Only eight per cent of young people reported cyber bullying to the service or network provider.
The vast majority (78 per cent) of the 1,500 participants felt that cyber-bullying was increasing and was less likely to be detected because of technology advancements. With 90 per cent of young people using a mobile phone and 91 per cent accessing the internet on a daily basis outside school hours this situation looks set to get worse.
Young people are calling for the Government to get tougher on regulation and codes of conduct, to fund more intervention strategies and to put pressure on internet companies to improve their safeguarding processes. Young people are not just speaking out, they have found an evidence-based research voice. Are we ready to listen?