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Monday, September 25, 2000

Techno-bullying worries parents

CHRISTOPHER FLETCHER was amazed when he came down to breakfast one morning to find his 14-year-old son Mark in floods of tears, begging not to be sent to school that day. His amazement turned to shock and rage when he found out that some of his sonís classmates had set up a Web page devoted to Mark. Posted on the site were a variety of abuse and taunts. It had already been seen not only by the pupils in Markís class, some of who had accessed it via the computers at their school, but by other children in the area, one of whom rang up to alert Mark.

Christopher already knew that there had been problems in Markís class and that boys had been picking on each other throughout the year; but he had thought that the situation had been resolved. He was horrified to find that the extremely public humiliation via techno-bullying was the culmination of a sustained campaign directed against his son.

"The Internet may be a wonderful thing, but this was just evil; it wasnít a game, it wasnít schoolboy banter, it was a very nasty, public, personal attack," he says. "The page said he was fat, gay, had no friends - and plenty more like that. The site had been accessed via the school computers during the lunch-hours, it had been seen by most of his class, by his peer group, and he was extremely upset."


The site has been taken down now, as far as Christopher knows; but the damage has been done. "Itís very worrying, because thereís no control at all over what goes up on the Web."

It is the first case of this particular kind of techno-bullying that Hereward Harrison, director of policy at Childline, has come across; but, sadly, heís not surprised. "Young people are very inventive," he says. "We have heard of instances of using text messages on mobile phones to bully other children. The technology for this kind of behaviour is there now, and bullies are turning it to their own ends." Similarly, Susan Littlemore, communications director at Parentline Plus, a British charity that runs a free help and information service on all aspects of parenting, is concerned but hardly amazed at the emergence of techno-bullying. "Kids are very ingenious in the ways that they bully each other. Technology is moving on and children today are extremely computer-literate; I should think that any technological framework thatís set up to stop children saying horrible things online will quickly be circumvented."

So what can be done to help children who find themselves in a similar situation to Mark Fletcher? Hereward Harrison says that dealing with techno-bullying starts with gathering evidence and getting adult help. The first step he recommends is to keep a detailed diary of whatís happening, including any abusive e-mails or downloaded Web pages, and show it to a parent or teacher. "Making the situation public is very positive when it comes to bullying. Then you need to set up a meeting between parents, school and the young person themselves, and formulate a plan of action; if necessary go to school governors, or the local education authority.

In some cases, the intervention of the police has been very effective." But when Christopher Fletcher approached his sonís school, he found that getting help was not easy. "They first said that because the site hadnít been concocted on school equipment, it was nothing to do with them. When I pointed out that it had been accessed from school computers, they were more interested. I had a letter from the head saying he had spoken to the boys concerned, but the overall tone was one of Ďboys will be boysí.

" Fletcher was sufficiently incensed by this cavalier approach to seek legal advice. "What the school took some time to appreciate was that Mark has been libelled. Itís like putting up a sign on a roundabout that everyone can read. Weíre entitled to sue for libel on his behalf. I am going to tell the school that if it happens again, we will be suing ó taking out injunctions against the parents of the boys concerned, impounding their home computers, and, if school computers were used, impounding those too." Christopher Fletcher may not be so far off the mark in thinking about the legal implications of techno-bullying. In April this year, a professor at the City College in San Francisco launched a libel lawsuit over allegations made by students on a Web site that he was "racist and mentally ill". Daniel Curzon Brown describes the site as "evil" and claimed that attacks had made him "depressed and afraid". He is currently suing the company that runs the Web site.

According to Susan Littlemore, schools donít always do all they can to help bullied children in more conventional situations, let alone ones aggravated by the use of technology. She says that many parents are let down by teachers, even when their child has been bullied to the end of his or her tether. "Parents are often surprised by how long their child has managed to conceal the issue, and when the parents find out, itís often an extreme situation by then. Not only is the child disturbed, but the parents are extremely distressed."

When it comes to techno-bullying, says Littlemore, "the argument isnít about creating a sterile environment where abuses canít happen, because thatís probably impossible". The way forward, she says, is for schools to set up an anti-bullying policy. "We are finding this isnít happening. Parents with legitimate concerns who approach their childís school arenít being heard. Getting parents involved is essential. Itís easy for those who are delivering education to focus solely on education, which is why parents need to become involved and voice their concerns."

Teachers, however, would argue that they are beleaguered enough already without adding to their workload. "Itís impossible for teachers to police whatís happening outside school ó itís difficult enough inside," says a spokeswoman for the British National Union of Teachers.

She recommends keeping home computers in shared spaces. "If the computer is in the living room then you can see on a regular basis as you pass by what your child is doing." The computer shouldnít be hidden away in the childís bedroom, she says. "If the parents of the children involved in this particular case had known what their children were doing, they might have been able to put a stop to it. Parents must monitor home use." Littlemore isnít so sure. "Whenever a community is set up, that community has responsibilities. Schools need to take that on board. When schools say they donít know what to do about bullying or itís not up to them to deal with it, the parents are stuck in the middle ó itís very unpleasant."

ó By arrangement with The Guardian

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