Cyber-bullying: an update
What is cyber-bullying?
Government guidance issued in 2007 (see below) defines cyber-bullying as: ‘the use of information and communications technology (ICT), particularly mobile phones and the internet, deliberately to upset someone else’.
Bullying over electronic devices can take a much more severe tone, as the culprit has a sense of anonymity
Staff in schools will be well aware that cyber-bullying differs in a number of ways to other kinds of bullying – in particular because of the invasion of the home and personal space, and the difficulty in controlling electronically circulated messages.
The size of the audience is also potentially very large. Evidence suggests that bullying over electronic devices can take a much more severe tone, as the culprit has a sense of anonymity. It allows people to make potentially hurtful communications, sometimes without fear of identification, and often people may not realise that their actions amount to bullying.
Research shows that cyber-bullying is a feature in many young people’s lives. It is also important to remember that it can affect school staff members.
What recent legal changes have been proposed to deal with cyber-bullying?
The defamation bill is currently being considered in Parliament. It proposes a number of changes to the law relating to ‘internet trolling’.
Internet trolling is where offenders post statements and content on the internet with the aim of insulting a particular person or inciting a reaction from a group of people. A number of high-profile people in the public eye, including politician Louise Mensch, have recently fallen victim to ‘internet trolls’, especially though Twitter.
The proposals require website operators to disclose the identity and contact details of people who post defamatory comments online, and will provide website operators with a defence against libel claims if they cooperate. To warrant such a disclosure, the injured party would have to show that their reputation had been significantly damaged.
Precisely how the complaints procedure will work is due to be set out in regulations that the Ministry of Justice will publish in coming weeks.
How will the changes to the defamation legislation impact on cyber-bullying in schools?
The proposals require website operators to disclose the identity and contact details of people who post defamatory comments online
For the Defamation Act to apply, an instance of cyber-bullying would need to amount to ‘defamation’, which is quite a high, although not impossible, threshold to meet. It will be interesting to see the contexts in which the change in law is used.
It is important, however, that teachers are aware of the potential changes, as instances of internet trolling and cyber-bullying are regularly reported, with increasingly devastating consequences.
Does this mean that online abuse will be a criminal offence?
Although cyber-bullying itself, along with other forms of online abuse, is not specifically a criminal offence, some of the forms that bullying may take, including harassment and threats, may be.
The passing of the bill won’t make online abuse a more direct criminal offence, although once the offender’s identity has been disclosed, the victim will be free to pursue a civil case against the offender. One example might be a defamation claim against the cyber-bully, which may be easier to pursue as a result of the proposed changes to the Defamation Act.
Schools should contact the police, if they feel that the law has been broken.
What is currently in place to protect pupils and staff from cyber-bullying?
Bullying is an issue that is taken very seriously in most schools. There is a range of government guidance and legislation that outlines schools’ duties and powers in relation to bullying, whether cyber or otherwise.
In particular, the Education Act 2011 contains wide search powers, giving teachers a specific power to search for and, if necessary, delete inappropriate images (or files) on electronic devices, including mobile phones. The Department for Education has recently published separate guidance around this, which is available on the DfE website.
The Education Act 2011 contains wide search powers, giving teachers a specific power to search for and, if necessary, delete inappropriate images (or files) on electronic devices
Teachers must take care when exercising these new powers, particularly the power to delete content. It is important that they do not delete any files or content that may later be important evidence as part of an investigation.
Schools should have anti-bullying policies in place. It is important that policies very clearly set out the powers that teachers have, and the way that pupils can be sanctioned, including in relation to actions that may occur among pupils outside the school premises.
What further actions can schools take?
The government issued guidance on this topic in 2007. Cyber-Bullying: Safe to Learn: Embedding Anti-Bullying Work in Schools (Department for Children, Schools and Families) indicates that there are a number of actions that schools and teachers can take to ensure that they prevent cyber-bullying in schools, including:
- designating to staff members, including IT staff, the specific role of preventing cyber-bullying
- promoting understanding and awareness of cyber-bullying
- updating existing anti-bullying policies within the school, so that they address cyber-bullying specifically
- monitoring school networks
- making sure that pupils, parents and staff are aware of the routes available to them to report cyber-bullying.