Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

Bullying is no longer confined to playgrounds – Stay cyber safe

Bullying, once confined within the realms of the school playground has evolved in the digital age and is now prevalent online.

As parents we must all concern ourselves with cyber bullying because most of our young people will, unfortunately, experience it or know someone who will in their childhood years.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, cyber bullying is any form of bullying or abuse that takes place online through phones and tablets, messaging apps, gaming sites or indeed social media.

Anyone with a teenager will attest to their phone being on their person 24 hours a day, which can give bullies access to them at times when they should be winding down and in places that would normally be their safe haven. Where once a bully’s domain would have been the school playground, they can now be found online day and night and attract a much wider audience.

This is a dangerous disadvantage to developing technology.

Types of Bullying

There are different types of cyber bullying we must become familiar with in order to look out for our children and nip it in the bud should it arise.

We have harassment, which is sending rude, offensive and insulting messages and writing abusive comments under posts.

Then we have denigration, which is the posting of photos or ‘memes’ for the purpose of ridicule. It’s the making up of lies and gossip and perhaps altering photographs to make fun of people publicly.

We also have something called ‘flaming’, which is deliberately causing arguments and goading people to spark a negative reaction and enjoying the fact that it causes distress to the person on the receiving end of it.

And then we have impersonation, which is hacking into someone’s social media accounts, or cloning their account, sending out an array of friend requests and posting embarrassing material about them.

More worrying for our young people is ‘outing’, which is tricking people into sharing personal details or photos that can be used against them. In this category we would also have blackmail and grooming which is rife on social media.

This is a terrifying development in the digital age where a stranger makes friends with your child online and after a time pressurises them into taking their clothes off and taking pictures. After weeks and sometimes months of befriending your child, these groomers threaten to tell parents and friends embarrassing or awful things about them, should they not do what they are told.

Stalking is when someone repeatedly sends messages that include threats, intimidation, that can cause fear and anxiety that could cause people to be concerned for their safety. These actions are serious and can result in criminal proceedings.

If you or your child feel scared by a threat issued online then the person behind the threat could be committing an offence. In the UK it is illegal to use the phone system and therefore the internet to cause distress or harm.

If you or your child has been threatened online, take a screengrab of the offending comment and report it to police.

The best thing about social media is that it opens up a whole new world of friends to us and our children. But that is also the worst thing. Social media bullying can be relentless and cruel. Anything nasty said about you can be viewed by hundreds of people instantly and can go viral pretty quickly.

Where once a cruel jibe might have been overheard by three people in the playground, these days thousands of people can be privy to your darkest secrets or your innermost insecurities with the click of a button.

The pressure on our young people is immense. We must arm them with the tools to ensure they can navigate these difficult waters with us beside them and then on their own.

Being bullied can have a detrimental image on your child’s mental health.

What should I do if I think my child is being bullied online?

Encourage your child to talk about any issues they have encounter and warn them of possible issues they may come across. Keep the conversation open always.

Keep a record of any cyber bullying you may encounter. Take screen shots and save them somewhere safe.

Report anything you don’t like to the social media companies, they have good measures in place to investigate and deal with abusive behaviour. And remember the ‘unfriend’ and ‘block’ tabs. Erasing ceaselessly negative and abusive people from your online life is a good start.

If you do come across problems remember that police can easily track those who post abusive material or make threats. Make sure you and your child keep passwords strong and sign out of public computers, such as the ones in the library or school.

As parents the online worlds our children exist in can be mindboggling. But this is the future and it’s where our kids feel the most comfortable. Online life, as in real life, can be tricky to navigate at times, but the good generally outweighs the bad.

Stay cyber safe.