Are parents fighting a losing battle with the internet?
Tragic Ronan Hughes is not the first victim of online bullying. We explore the challenges facing our teens in the digital age
Published 10/06/2015 | 02:30
Yesterday, family and friends gathered at St Patrick's Church in the little village of Clonoe, Co Tyrone, to mourn the latest tragic face of cyberbullying.
Last Friday, it was reported that 17-year-old Ronan Hughes took his own life after being tricked into posting images on the internet, but parish priest Fr Benny Fee has a different viewpoint.
"Ronan did not take his own life," he said to the packed congregation. "His life was taken from him, and somewhere in the world, maybe far, far away from Clonoe, is a man, a woman or a gang who are guilty of a heinous crime."
While police investigate the circumstances surrounding the popular student's untimely death, it brings back bitter memories of other heartbreaking tragedies on these shores in recent years.
In 2012, Ciara Pugsley (15), from Leitrim, Erin Gallagher, (13), from Ballybofey, Co Donegal and a few months later her sister Shannon (15), all ended their lives after experiencing online bullying. It's become such a global problem, even Pope Francis recently rowed by encouraging parents to ban computers in the bedroom to shield children from "filth" on the internet.
"There is dirty content, pornography, semi-pornography," he said. "There are parents that are very worried and don't let their children have computers in their bedroom but in a common place."
Pornography is not the only reason more and more parents are saying no to smartphones and tablets in their children's rooms late at night. More often than not, it's now the fear of children being subjected to bullying that makes them put their foot down and insist that it's lights out for Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media that keep kids awake at night.
"Believe me, getting a message on the lines of 'You're scum - I'm going to get you!' is a lot different at two in the morning than it is during the day," says Carmel Walsh, a counsellor who runs a schools programme called I Me Mine to help parents, students and teachers deal with cyberbullying. She first developed the programme four years ago for secondary schools; now she's delivering workshops to kids as young as eight in primary school.
"It used to be that Confirmation money bought kids their first smartphone; now it's Communion money that's doing it," she says. "As a result, you've got eight-year-olds using Snapchat while some parents don't even know what it is.
"One mum recently showed me a picture her daughter's friend had taken of her naked and put it up on Snapchat. The girls thought it would be a bit of fun. They're 12!
"Another mother said her 14-year-old wanted to go to the beauty salon for a Brazilian, because pubic hair is ugly. These kids are exposed to this kind of thing at a much younger age than before, and parents need to catch up fast.
"Trust me, teenagers are not playing Super Mario on their computers - that's for five-year-olds. Today's teens are having sexualised conversations on sites such as IMVU, where they play games like 'How to make your avatar naked.' All this stuff is so new, it's like the Wild West to many parents, but that's all the more reason for them to learn."
But surely, it's not all down to parents. Don't the internet companies themselves have a responsibility in policing themselves? It's a question that was asked last month at the Global Stop Cyberbullying Youth Summit held in Limerick IT on May 7 and in Facebook's international HQ in Dublin two days later. This brought together representatives of all the major companies, including Facebook, YouTube, Google, Microsoft, AskFM, as well as the head of child crime in Interpol, young people and a host of interested parties from home and abroad.
"While the companies are putting measures in place to tackle the problem, you have to consider the scale of the thing," says Carmel Walsh. "For instance, YouTube gets 300 million clicks per hour. That's impossible to police. Far better to educate parents to make their child strong enough to recognise what is abhorrent and say no."
Simon Grehan, manager of webwise.ie, a resource for parents and teachers, points to recent data which revealed that many young people who had reported bullying were unhappy with the way it was dealt with.
"It's a massive grey area," he says. "We don't expect the companies involved to preview content, but they are expected to remove illegal online content. They all have terms and conditions with clauses around harassment, but they're not always enforced very well. They're good at removing nude images, but when posts are taken out of context, it can be difficult to differentiate between bullying and banter.
"It's a very complex issue and one that comes down to consent or privacy. Sharing a selfie gives away certain rights and when somebody posts an image to a semi-private environment and it ends up in the public domain, there is no real protection around that. It really is a minefield."
It's also very difficult for parents to know what to do. A Garda spokesman advised, "If somebody is subject to abusive comments online, you should report it to your local Garda station."
That's all very well, but children often don't even tell their parents, let alone get the Gardai involved. And if they did, what could they do? Like most experts, Dr Grainne Kirwan, chartered psychologist, lecturer on cyberpsychology and co-author of Cybercrime: The Psychology of Online Offenders,' says the web is extremely difficult to police, especially given the international nature of it.
"Technology is neither good, bad or neutral, it's a tool," she says. "Young people explore the world using ways and means their parents and teachers never had, and the rules are unclear.
"We teach them how to cross the road in the real world; now we need to show them how to navigate the superhighway online.
"One of the most important piece of advice I give to parents is not to threaten to take away the technology if your child confides in you about being bullied.
"The internet is a lifeline for teens and they're often terrified that if they report abuse, their smartphone or tablet will be taken from them. The parents might do it out of a desire to protect their child, but it is in fact further victimising the victim."
And we're back to the heart of the problem again, why there are so many victims of appalling behaviour on the internet. Dr Kirwan quotes recent studies that show up to 40pc of young people are cyberbullied, which is a significant number of the population.
"The lack of eye contact between a perpetrator and victim is an important factor," she says. "It's why people say and do things online they wouldn't do in real life.
"The perpetrator can't see the hurt or fear in the eyes of the victim, so they don't have to deal with the emotional fallout of their actions.
"Anonymity also plays a part. People can hide behind walls and personae and don't have to face the same consequences they would in the real world."
There may be some hope on the horizon, however. William Priestley, Manager of the West End Youth Centre in Limerick, says last month's high-profile global summit has galvanised everyone involved to make it an annual event.
"We've already put together a steering committee to drive this forward," he says. "After the tragic teen suicides in 2012, people did individual things, but what we're planning now is to build a cohesive framework that can be used to protect children throughout Ireland and all over the world. This is huge progress.
"Digital safety and emotional safety are defining issues of our time. We plan to develop a platform to tackle a global problem."
Top tips to keep your child safe online
1 Draw up a digital contract for you and your child. After all, you'll probably be paying the bills. The contract should include an agreed time by which the phone/iPad/tablet/laptop should be taken out of the child's bedroom.
Receiving a bullying text at two in the afternoon is far less psychologically threatening than receiving the same text at two in the morning.
2 Check your child's digital history on said device - this is not invading your child's privacy. If your child is under 16 years of age and chooses to post online his or her innermost thoughts, feelings and emotions, often accompanied by photographs, then as a parent you have an obligation to check that out. This cannot be compared to reading their private diary hidden away under their bed.
3 While performing your duty by checking this history, look out for a few minutes that are missing - that's often the bit they've deleted. Find out why.
4 It's a good idea to install internet safety devices to help protect your children from online trolls, but be aware that kids can outwit even savvy parents by going online and discovering how to disable the device in seven easy steps. Try to stay ahead of the game.
5 Impress on your child from a very young age that everything online leaves a digital footprint that is never erased. Teaching them to be mindful of this can help them to avoid potential future regret and embarrassment.
Tips courtesy of counsellor Carmel Walsh. For further information www.facebook.com/imemineschools - www.facebook.com/westendlimerick