THE message was delivered quietly, but firmly. “If you think cyberbullying is not a Garda matter, you would be incorrect.” And, judging by the grave faces of the 100 or so first years hearing the message from Garda Elaine Freemantle, it hit home.
Monday was Safer Internet Day, a day in which Gardai all over the county visited schools as part of a concerted campaign to stop bullying in schools, concentrating in particular, on cyberbullying.
But happily the first years in Pallaskenry were already aware of some of the golden rules in dealing with cyberbullying. “Block the caller, save the message, tell somebody,” a number of them chanted in unison, referring to bullying via text message.
But they were visibly affected by a short video featuring teenager Joe and his experience of cyberbullying, a story in which a happy, well-adjusted student became lonely and depressed following a campaign of bullying which quickly escalated from jealousy to texts, mobile phone messages, emails and a social media page.
The real virtue of the video was that it allowed students to see how quickly something seemingly innocuous could develop into a frightening case of bullying as they watched Joe go from being a happy student with friends to someone who was labelled a loser, a figure to hate, someone who was ostracised and made feel fearful and lonely.. “At first I tried to laugh it off,” Joe says on screen, “but it just went on and on.”
The video was intended to provoke discussion… and within the time constraints of a busy school morning, it did just that.
The students were specifically asked to identify who was doing the bullying and why. “I thought they were supposed to be my friends.” They also had to analyse exactly how they were doing it. And crucially, they were asked to describe Joe’s feelings, and to look at ways to obtain help.
“People feel isolated and feel they have nobody to talk to. It is important to speak to somebody,” Garda Freemantle said, reinforcing the get-help message. But she warned too that Gardai had powers to trace blocked numbers and email addresses – and had used those powers.
After, some students explained their views to the Limerick Leader. “Cyber-bullying is worse than other bullying because nobody else knows,” explained one student. Her classmate agreed but added that it was also worse because if a social media page went up, then everybody could see it.
But, critically, they identified why students let it happen to others. “Because they don’t want to be bullied themselves or they want to be cool.”
Cyberbullying has been identified as a particularly virulent form of bullying and is now part of a wider campaign by the Department of Education and Skills to clamp down on bullying in schools.
Research into the effects of cyberbullying on young people, published earlier this week, reveals that the younger the age at which it occurs, the bigger the negative impact.
Worryingly, the EU Kids Online report, revealed that just one in three young people who had been bullied on the internet had let their parents know. And the report found that the level of cyberbullying increased with age.
At the same time, just 4% of Irish children have suffered online bullying.
Up to Us is another campaign, launched to mark Safer Internet Day, which aims to encrouage people who witness online bullying to show their support.