Protecting looked-after children from cyber-bullying

Professionals need to be proactive if they are to prevent children's misuse of social media websites, writes Professor Helen Cowie

Professionals need to be proactive if they are to prevent children’s misuse of social media websites, writes Professor Helen Cowie

Children in care have always been vulnerable to bullying and it is something teachers, social workers, foster carers and residential care workers have learned to be particularly vigilant about.

However, with 65% of 11- to 16-year-olds now having a profile on a social networking site, cyber-bullying is presenting carers and professionals with its own unique challenges.

Bullying is now no longer confined to the schools and the journey home but can take place through mobile phones, over the internet, by email and on social networking sites such as Facebook or Twitter. It can be a far more insidious and prolific form of bullying because of the anonymity it offers to perpetrators.

It can take a variety of forms including threats of physical violence, name-calling (including homophobia), death threats, hate mail, sexual demands, threats to damage existing relationships, menacing chain messages and threats involving home and family. A survey of 23,420 children and young people aged nine to 16 across Europe found that 5% were being bullied more than once a week, 4% once or twice a month and 10% less often. However, like more traditional forms of bullying, the rates among looked-after children are likely to be much higher.

Male cyber-bullies tend to extend existing threats of direct physical attack online. Female cyber-bullies extend existing social exclusion to ensure that targets remain unpopular.

Like all forms of bullying the emotional harm caused can be extreme, but when the target is a looked-after young person, it tends to exacerbate existing feelings of insecurity and anxiety caused by their experiences and family situation.

Attachment difficulties resulting from disruptions in their family lives will also make it hard for this group of young people to trust adults enough to tell them about experiences of bullying, or even to believe that adults will care enough about them to take action. Often many will also have changed school or placement which means they have problems in making and keeping close friendships – a protective factor against the impact of bullying.

Children in care can also be cyber-bullies themselves either as a way of seeking revenge on other children for past hurts or as a way of expressing the emotional turmoil they are suffering because of their family situation.

While younger children, from seven years, generally access the internet in public areas, 49% of children and young people aged nine to 16 use the internet in places that are unsupervised by adults. This means adults need to be proactive if they are to supervise and monitor their children’s activity online.

It can be tempting to resort to punishment, such as taking away mobile phones or preventing access to the internet. However, this approach is rarely effective and can often only heighten secrecy and fear.

It is more effective to sit down and talk through the issues with the young person making sure they are aware of the likely emotional impact it is having or could have. Best of all is to ask the young person to think of how they can prevent cyber-bullying or protect themselves against it.

It is also important to provide children and young people with the skills to manage risk effectively, to know how to protect themselves and to support other vulnerable peers who are being mistreated online.

Don’t inflame the situation or over-egg the dangers. Be calm and promote the need for young people to show respect online just as they would face-to-face. Also point out that anonymity brings its own risks. It is not absolute either as often online communications can be traced back to real people, even if they are using a pseudonym.

This education needs to start early – both for young people and also carers and professionals who need to be swift to pick up signs that a child might be suffering cyber-bullying and aware of the harm it can cause – particularly for looked-after children who are already very emotionally vulnerable.

Professor Helen Cowie is director of the UK Observatory for the Promotion of Non-Violence at the University of Surrey in the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences

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This article is published in the 3 November 2011 edition of Community Care under the headline “Reducing cyber-bullying risk in looked-after children”

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