Why it's time to face up to cyberbullying
Online bullying can have devastating consequences, but the tide may be turning after some recent tragedies
IS the tide turning against cyberbullies?
SHANE McEntee, the nephew of TD Shane McEntee who took his own life before Christmas after he had been subjected to vicious cyberbullying, recently took to his social-networking page to voice his disgust at a torrent of abuse being dished out to a young woman online. He called for understanding for a South Dublin teenager who was seen in a video bragging about her dad being "the highest-earning partner" in a major accountancy firm and calling the diners filming her "losers".
Shane, a talented GAA player with the Meath minor team, made a plea for people to halt the online taunts against the teenager, writing on his Twitter page: "Surely people have the cop-on at this stage, after all the recent tragedies not to go to town on the girl."
Sadly, cop-on is sorely lacking in the dark side of social media. In a recent posting on her website, RTE 2fm presenter Louise McSharry wrote of what happened when she looked up a video clip of herself on YouTube as part of her preparation for a TV job interview.
"I was looking at the comments, I looked with hope, hope that maybe this time there wouldn't be a comment about my weight, but of course there was. It was petty and snide and it hurt. And then I got annoyed at myself for letting it bother me. And then I got annoyed at the people who sit behind their computer screens like big brave men and make anonymous comments about people. And then I called my boyfriend and cried for a few minutes."
It brought the broadcaster back to when she was 14 and bullied about her weight, and she wondered what it must be like to be 13, 14 or 15 and have that happen. Given the effect that comments by complete strangers could have on her as an adult, what must it be like for today's teens who cannot escape and shut the door on tormentors as she did at their age, she asks.
Meanwhile, there's the news that Twitter users are to be sued for defamatory comments posted on the social network site. A flood of complaints from 'Twitter victims' are now in the pipeline after a landmark legal case.
In what is believed to be the first case of its kind, businessman Declan Ganley forced a blogger to apologise and make a donation to charity after he was defamed in a series of tweets.
Legal experts now believe we will see a "dramatic increase" in the number of people looking to sue for libel on Twitter amid a major focus on the dark side of social networking.
One case which will have haunting parallels for Irish parents is that of 16-year-old American schoolgirl Jessica Laney who committed suicide just before Christmas after what friends termed a sustained campaign of bullying on Ask.Fm. Some people labelled her 'fat' on the site, one poster even asked the troubled teen, "can't you kill yourself already?"
How have we got to the situation where young people pour out such vitriol about their peers?
An American study of college students by researcher Sara Konrath found that empathy levels are decreasing among young adults. The most dramatic decrease was from the year 2000. Konrath links it to the fact that it was after this that the explosion in social media began.
"They become immersed in isolated online environments, which make it easier to ignore others pain and to inflict pain on others," she writes. She feels there has been a parallel increase in narcissism, or 'love of self' in the same age cohort. 'Brand Me', as it's been termed, means that every photo is put up on Facebook, every thought they have, shared, the 'like' button has become a permanent marketing tool. If it's not online, then it didn't happen, seems to be the underlying message.
New guidelines will soon be issued to encourage parents of Secondary school students to come forward with information they have about bullying.
Fine Gael Dun Laoghaire TD and ex- headmistress Mary Mitchell O'Connor has joined the debate on cyberbullying -- calling for an all-party approach to tackle "the destructive potential of social media".
Interestingly, most of the coverage of cyberbullying has separated the victims and the perpetrators. But both groups are being manipulated as those companies making billions in profits have little loyalty to users or their parents.
Entrepreneur Andrew Keen argues that social media is killing our innocence, privacy and social interaction. At a conference in Brussels last November, he spoke of how some Silicon Valley millionaires were sending their kids to schools where mobiles, iPods and iPads were outlawed.
These wealthy tech-savvy parents were taking the kinds of initiatives which are at odds with the advice parents are being given by online safety experts who insist parents negotiate but not ban online access.
One mother told me of how sick she felt when she saw her 13-year-old daughter's open Facebook page, littered with insults from girls in her class, some of them supposedly her friends. When confronted, her daughter confessed that she had started it, by joking with a classmate online about another girl. The whole thing had escalated and she didn't know what to do.
Her mother came to the decision that if she did not know how to handle it, then she shouldn't be online in the first place and took away her laptop.
Yet when she told her friends what she had done, she was criticised for over-reacting, "You're better off letting her learn her lesson by the messages she was getting from her friends over what she wrote," one mother said.
The latter perhaps did not realise that these online feuds between teens can have dramatic and long-term consequences, and that the self-correcting mechanism of the internet has been greatly exaggerated.
More crucially, an English mother who appeared on a TV programme I was producing described how, after her teenage daughter went missing, the police arrived to take away her laptop for further examination. They found she had been on a number of suicide sites, and the missing person's search turned into something more sinister.
After her daughter's body was discovered the distraught mother read some of the messages that had passed between her daughter and the people on these sites. Far from telling her there was a better way, her new-found friends gave advice on how she could appear totally normal to her parents, allaying any suspicion that she might be contemplating self-harm.
That complete strangers, and adults at that, could have been involved in her daughter's death had made the bereaved mother feel she had 'confronted true evil'.
Most parents dealing with teenagers will tell you that while outwardly grown-up, they still need to be protected from themselves. Recent studies in the UK have found a shocking percentage of young teens are both accessing porn online, and also using those images to groom other teens. Despite intense lobbying by children's rights groups who wanted internet service providers to have an automatic block on pornography, the British Government have very recently gone for a system whereby ISPs will encourage parents to switch on controls.
Parents and schools are being asked to bear the brunt of the responsibility for what happens to young people online.
Those who are making billions from the internet appear more concerned with their rights.
Parents need to take back control and actively lobby to have internet companies fulfill their responsibilities to society.
As one garda working to track paedophiles online told me: "Would you let a stranger walk upstairs into your child's bedroom? That's how vigilant you have to become."