ONE-in-five schoolgirls has fallen victim to cyber bullying, a nationwide survey has revealed.
The full extent of the problem of internet and mobile phone bullying is revealed today in the first major study of its kind in this country, commissioned on behalf of the Irish Independent and RTE's 'Prime Time Investigates'.
The findings show children as young as 12 are being targeted through mobile phone calls, text messages, e-mails, internet forums, chatrooms and social networking sites.
The survey, which paints an unsettling picture of the growth in online and mobile phone intimidation among secondary school pupils, also reveals that:
- One-in-seven students have been targeted by bullies via the internet or their mobile phones.
- Girls are more likely to fall victim to online bullies than boys.
- One-in-eight boys admitted to being 'cyber bullied' in recent months.
- One-in-11 pupils admitted that they engaged in 'cyber bullying' recently.
More than 2,790 pupils from eight secondary schools -- including public and fee-paying, mixed and single-sex schools -- took part in the landmark survey.
It probed abuse carried out on social networking sites; abusive text messages; problems with peers taking and sending abusive video clips or photographs on mobile phones; and abuse carried out in internet chatrooms.
The country's leading expert on bullying, Dr Mona O'Moore, last night criticised the Government for failing to respond to the growing problem of cyber bullying in schools.
She called on the Department of Education to initiate a national anti-bullying programme that would provide specific guidelines and policies to help schools deal with the problem.
Dr O'Moore, whose team at the anti-bullying centre at Trinity College carried out the study on behalf of the Irish Independent and 'Prime Time Investigates', said the Government had been "very, very slow in taking responsibility for implementing . . . international good practice".
"We have a long road to travel. It is up to the Department of Education and Science to lead us," Dr O'Moore said. "Bullying should carry a health warning, same as smoking."
Dr O'Moore, who urged schools to play a greater role in educating parents on their children's internet usage, said: "Schools have to speak out and set a zero acceptance to this and there have to be some sanctions."
Service providers must not be allowed to "slip away" from their responsibilities, she added.
Experts say cyber bullying can lead to anxiety, fear, symptoms of depression, self-harm and suicide. As youngsters engaging in cyber bullying do not see their victims, it is easier for them to become 'cyber bullies' without appreciating the consequences of their actions.
The Department of Education plans to revise its 15-year-old anti-bullying guidelines to take account of cyber bullying. A spokeswoman for new Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe insisted the department already had "a strong focus on cyber bullying".
But, she added: "The issue of bullying is a complex one that transcends the school environment; and while the department has a strong role to play in combating it, education in its wider sense, within the home, is critically important."
The National Parents' Council said mobile phones and the internet had emerged as the "new technology of bullying".
Spokeswoman Rose Tully said parents must set parameters for their children's internet usage, highlighting cases where students organised fights which were videoed on mobile phones and posted to the internet.
Frank Mulvihill of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors warned that cyber bullying could have tragic consequences.
It directly affected students' grades in the short term, and could drive others to threaten to take their own lives.
More than 14pc of secondary school students aged between 12 and 19 said they had been targeted by cyber bullies in the survey, while 11pc said it had happened to them once or twice, and 3pc said it was a regular occurrence.
l See tonight's 'Prime Time Investigates' (9.30pm, RTE One) for further detail and analysis of the survey findings.
Freedom of expression and the right to know are mantras of a society which congratulates itself on its supposed liberalism and its technological mastery. The internet has given us worldwide communication and instant access to limitless information -- and these are wonderful things.