Cyber-bullying – a hard lesson to learn

Are you Tweeting? Is Facebook on your favourites list? Internet use and the popularity of social networking sites continues to grow as more and more people go online. However, with any new communication platform there comes new ways for it to be abused. With Anti-Bullying Week taking place this month we take a look at social networking and cyberbullying aimed at teachers and ask the question: is the social networking playground any place for a teacher?

The social networking phenomenon continues to pick up steam. It seems you can’t go anywhere these days without hearing who’s Tweeting.

Facebook, the UK’s most popular social networking site is now thought to have over 400 million users worldwide and this month a film about its young creators, ‘The Social Network’, topped the US film chart, raking in over $23m (£14m) and causing a huge stir in the UK.

So, who is online? An Ofcom report released in August this year showed 61 per cent of 15-34s in the UK are now using social networking sites, along with 40 per cent of all adults aged 16+. Nearly half of 35-54s claim to use social networking sites, as do 20 per cent of 55-64s. According to the report, social networking accounts for nearly a quarter of all time spent on the internet.

Getting familiar with Facebook

With social networking such a huge part of the lives of so many – young and old – it seems there can be little escape.

For teachers, it may well be worth spending time getting to know social networking sites – whether it’s Facebook, MySpace, Bebo or the ‘next big thing’; not only can the experience help teachers relate to their pupils, but it can be invaluable when working with them to counteract cyberbullying, which is all too prevalent.

‘Virtual Violence: Protecting Children from Cyberbullying’, a 2009 report released by leading bullying prevention charity Beatbullying, revealed that 61.2% of secondary school pupils aged 11-18 have witnessed some form of cyberbullying. It also highlighted the number of extreme cases where a young person is persistently and systematically cyberbullied – some even receiving death threats online.

41% in contact with pupils via Facebook

Could this quest for better understanding leave teachers open to the potential risk of personal attacks themselves?

The Association of Teachers & Lecturers (ATL) has found it’s not just pupils who can become the victims of online bullies. Earlier this year, The Times newspaper reported on a survey conducted by the ATL which found that of the 600 members surveyed, 41 per cent were in contact with pupils via social networking site Facebook.

A further 15 per cent reported having had abusive messages from students and parents and some even had special groups set up specifically to target them, according to the report.

Doctored photos

Worst experiences included staff who had been ridiculed through the use of doctored photographs and videos that were published on the internet.

As a result, at its annual conference the ATL passed a motion calling for teachers to be better advised on ways to handle and protect themselves from cyberbullying.

One thing remains clear: that the social networking phenomenon is here to stay and for younger generations it looks set to continue to form a major part of their lives.

For teachers, an understanding of the platform will certainly be beneficial, especially when trying to relate to pupils and issues they may be facing, including cyberbullying. The downside is that careless participation may also leave them open to personal attack.

 15-19 November is Anti-Bullying Week in the UK. For more information go to the Anti-Bullying Week website.

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