Sunday 26 March 2017

Regulation won't tackle cyber bullying


THE TRAGIC death of Donegal teenager Erin Gallagher, who took her own life after being subjected to a vile bullying campaign on the Internet, has shocked the nation and led to calls for greater control and regulation of social media websites. This reaction is entirely well intentioned but it lays the blame in the wrong quarter.

Erin was just 13 ears old when she took her life last Saturday week following relentless harassment via the social media site Ask.Fm. In September, another young girl, 15 year old Ciara Pugsley, died by suicide near her home in Leitrim, also after being bullied mercilessly on Ask.Fm.

It is difficult to understand how people who are so young, with life and all its possibilities ahead of them, should instead choose death. Erin and Ciara are but two of a great many young people who die by suicide in Ireland every year and this raises very serious questions about the availability and effectiveness of supports, counselling and suicide intervention services for young people. On this occasion, however, the focus has been more on social media websites and the part they have played in driving young people to suicide.

At the heart-rending funeral of Erin Gallagher last Wednesday, Fr. John Joe Duffy laid blame squarely on Ask.Fm as he called on the many students who were among the mourners "to go home and cancel their Ask.Fm accounts and not use such websites". Saying that society had failed Erin, Fr. Duffy also blasted the Government for failing to effectively regulate social media websites.

Fr. Duffy's comments were powerful and there is no doubt they would be shared by a great many people, and parents in particular. However, it's also worth taking on board comments made in the wake of Erin's death by the founder of the Latvia-based website Ask.Fm. According to Mark Terebin, his website is just a tool that allows people to communicate with each other, the same as any other social network, telephone or pen and paper. For him, the problem is not about the site, the problem is about education and moral values.

He may have been defending his website, but Mr Terebin hits the nail on the head here. The problem is not the means of communication; it's how it is used. Erin Gallagher didn't die because the Internet exists; she took her own life after being bullied relentlessly and without pity or mercy until she felt she had no other means of escape. The ease of access to powerful communication tools such as mobile phones, texting, email, chatrooms and social media sitesfacilitate this, but they don't cause it.

Any notions that the problem of cyber bullying will be addressed by more regulation are well wide of the mark. We already have laws - The Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act being just one - that prohibit harassment that "seriously interferes with the other's peace and privacy or causes alarm, distress or harm".

We don't need new laws; we need to use the laws that already exist. More importantly we need to look at the social issues underlying the rampant bullying that appears to have reached epidemic proportions and parents need to ensure they are fully aware of what their children are getting up to - for it is there that the solution lies.

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