There was a time when bullying involved fights in the playground and adults could break it up. Now, children are also under attack from cyberbullies. Suzanne Harrington explains why she has banned her children from Facebook and online forums
My kids are not on Facebook. They'd like to be – many of their friends are – but I am not budging.
It's not that I am keen to restrict their freedom – they have lots of it offline – but letting them loose on social-media sites would be, I think, like driving them to the centre of a giant city where they have never been before, then letting them out of the car and driving away. It's just not a good idea.
I'm not on Facebook either, which helps, and Twitter, which I love, doesn't have the same appeal for kids. They think it's deadly boring.
I am not one of those people who fear other people on the internet, either. Far from it – I've met friends and boyfriends through social media and internet dating, and, like most people, regard the internet as the greatest invention since the printing press.
But that doesn't mean I want my children roaming cyberspace without restriction. This has nothing to do with accidentally stumbling on to porn sites – there are parental controls to prevent that. It is about something more subtle.
As adults, we understand nuance; we can read between the lines and decode online social interaction. Adults – at least, most of us – have clear boundaries and a strong sense of self-preservation. In other words, we can recognise something iffy.
Kids generally haven't yet honed this facility, even as they use digital media as their primary communication mode. Hmmm. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, how about hacking, stalking, threatening, flaming (online fights), outing, impersonation, gossip, defamation?
Offline, we are always warning our kids to watch out for dodgy adults, predators, grown-ups taking advantage of their grown-up power over children. We emphasise stranger danger above all else.
But really the people most routinely harmful to children are other children. For every child abuser or abductor, there are a million school bullies, a million mean girls and nasty boys. And when they're not in the playground, they're all online.
Bullying used to be getting your head kicked in at the bus stop and your dinner money stolen by bloody-minded boys, or snide girls pretending you were invisible or, worse, like a bad smell in their midst.
Pre-digital, bullying was a hands-on affair, where physical intimidation was used to frighten, humiliate and exclude unlucky members of the peer group. Post-digital, it has gone remote.
But cyberbullying is no less shattering than the face-to-face kind. It can be deadly. Irish teenagers Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley both died recently as a result of it, both girls desperate enough to regard suicide as their only means of escape.
Erin was 13, Ciara 15. Their deaths were unlinked, other than by a motivation to stop being bullied. A third teenage girl died in Canada around the same time.
Suicide as a result of cyber-bullying has appeared as a toxic by-product of the digital age.
The idea that something as innocuous and inanimate as a computer screen or mobile phone could drive young teenagers to their deaths is almost incomprehensible to an adult, but then we are not digital natives.
We have not grown up with social-networking sites, texting, instant messages, Twitter, Flickr, Instagram, Facebook and all the myriad ways kids and young people have of communicating with each other beyond old-school talking face to face and on the phone.
Pre-digital, the humiliation of being bullied was restricted to whoever witnessed it in the playground at the time; cyberbullying has an infinite audience, multiplying feelings of shame and loneliness.
It's timeless and indelible, no matter how regulated a site may be – you can't erase everything.
And it's not like an adult can march smartly in and break up the fight. Adults often haven't a clue what's going on with their kids online. I know I don't. Hence the ban on social-networking sites until my children are older and more able to deal with them.
Meanwhile, I remind my kids over and over to always be kind, always be inclusive, no matter where they are.
"I've seen cases of kids being totally ostracised by their peer group because of something posted online," says psychologist Ian Gargan, adding that children and teenagers find it impossible to defend themselves online because it involves people they don't even know forming negative opinions about them based on uploaded bile.
This denigration happens at exactly the time kids are building their identities, constructing their personalities, their confidence.
"My worry is that it could lead to psychiatric illness that would follow teenagers into adulthood," says Dr Gargan.
So, what do you do? My kids are 12 and nine, so it's still easy to just say no to Facebook, online forums, etc. It's not that they don't have access to personal technology – the 12-year-old has a laptop and a BlackBerry, the nine-year-old has a Nintendo DS and is in line for a mobile on his next birthday – but just as I don't let them roam around the city unaccompanied, neither are they allowed to do so online.
Recently, they have come to see why.
One of my daughter's classmates is a bully, and has graduated from playground bullying to cyberbullying. This bully regularly impersonates other kids online as a 'joke', which embarrasses them – she pretends she is someone else, and sends romantic messages to friends of the opposite sex.
This might sound harmless, but when you're 12 or 13, it's excruciating. She leaves nasty comments on the pages of her friends' social- media sites, gossips wildly, and uses social media to bully and exclude weaker members of her peer group.
Lately, she has been uploading inappropriately sexualised images of herself. This is not to slag off the child in question – she is troubled, and subsequently attention-seeking – but to highlight just how easy it is for a child to misuse the mighty internet.
You wouldn't give a kid access to a bottle of vodka or a gun, yet we assume we can let them loose online once the porn sites are blocked and nothing bad will happen.
"Parents need to ensure that children are only given age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate freedom to roam online," says psychologist Marie Claire O'Brien.
"For example, an older child who has not yet developed competency in interacting socially in the real world should be supported and monitored when he or she is interacting in [areas] that would require sophisticated communication skills, such as online forums.
"Parents need to make decisions about how much freedom they allow children to have online in a similar vein to how they make decisions about allowing children freedom in the community."
O'Brien explains that even if your children are using the internet at home with their parents nearby, it's not enough to protect them from risks.
"Although children can be physically close to you whilst they are roaming online, they are exposed to a wide range of potentially harmful situations," she says.
"Ideally, parents would 'scaffold' or grade their child's level of freedom online so that the child would be given very little freedom initially and gradually allowed more after demonstrated periods of safe and responsible internet use."
The ages of peak vulnerability differ between teen boys and girls. Girls are more susceptible during menarche – that is, aged around 12 to 15.
"They can identify with negative comments and isolate from their positive peer group – like their family – and start to wonder, 'Is this what I am?'," says Dr Gargan, in regard to how girls process online bullying.
"They may then internalise these negative comments, which adds to their isolation." Young teenage girls are often a seething mass of sensitivity and insecurity – their emotional development is such that it can leave them temporarily thin-skinned and open to all kinds of nastiness.
They are the social group most likely to self-harm, and are more susceptible to eating disorders; they are under constant external pressure from the surrounding culture to look and act a certain way.
There's a lot to be said for bringing your daughters up (and your sons) with robust feminist values, so they have some kind of ingrained internal safeguard from the onslaught of prescriptive cultural pressure on how to be/look/behave. Well, in theory, anyway.
Boys mature later than girls, which means that their relative lack of emotional intelligence can protect them from internalising negativity the way girls do.
However, boys are more vulnerable between around 16 and 19. As Dr Gargan points out, they cannot use their physicality to defend themselves online the way they would in real life. You can't run away online.
As a parent, you can't ban your kids from being online. That would be luddite, and counterproductive. While you can steer your kids towards age-appropriate online content (my daughter had installed parental controls on her own laptop before I'd even read the manual), the main work is to instil two crucial points.
First, the importance of empathy. Ask them to imagine how they would feel if someone was mean to them.
My daughter has already seen the effects of her classmate's cyberbullying, although she was not victim to it herself.
It has made her more protective of others, and more likely to stand up for herself.
"Socially secure kids are neither bullies nor bullied," says Dr Gargan.
Second, and if the empathy route doesn't work, there is the stark reality that were kids to become involved in a case of cyberbullying, their part in it would all be documented and traceable.
"Your words could end up on the front page of the newspaper," says Dr Gargan. "So don't be mean, and always be conscious of what you are writing."
Online bullies are accountable – anonymity is no guarantee of avoiding detection. Be warned.
When your teenage kids go to the cinema or the disco, they know that they have to behave responsibly or they won't be allowed to go unaccompanied again. The same applies online.
Trolling and cyberbullying needs to be up there with street fighting, shoplifting and solvent abuse in terms of teenage no-nos.
Meanwhile, encourage your kids to get out of the house and play a game of football or go for a bike ride – there is still life beyond screens, no matter what the digital marketing giants would have you think.