Cyber Bullying: The night I heard my 16-year-old tough-guy son sobbing
Kevin O'Leary (not his real name) could hear his strapping 16-year-old son crying in his upstairs bedroom. He never heard sobs like it.
That cold January night was when cyber bullying became a very real part of their lives -- and still does almost a year later.
"I don't want to be here and there is nothing here for me. Life is becoming a drudgery," was what his son Colin (not his real name) told him last January. Kevin could not believe what he was hearing, as he sat on the edge of his bed.
Kevin desperately tried to tease out the "pressure points" from his teenage son, thinking it may be girlfriend troubles or study issues. But his son would not tell him what was wrong.
Three weeks later, after hearing his son berate himself out loud while in his bedroom alone, Kevin finally found out what was happening.
"There were numerous derogatory remarks that my son found on the Facebook page," says Kevin.
Colin had only found out about the page when his peers told him to look at it.
"When he looked at the Facebook pages, he found that there was an avalanche of other internet links created to other awful sites that were very upsetting."
The internet page had received a huge number of comments on it. His computer and mobile became no-go areas.
Colin had gone straight from third to fifth year without doing transitional year, so he was in a class of lads he did not really know and he was feeling isolated.
"It is like being hit by a train. It has been so difficult to take the pain away for my son. It's been a rollercoaster ride for all of us since that night," explained Colin's father.
A desperate time ensued for Kevin and his partner Yvonne as he felt he "couldn't stop the hurt" his son was feeling. "I hadn't a clue how to get this page down off the website as I didn't have any email address or phone number for Facebook."
Frustrated, Kevin contacted the American Embassy in Dublin's Ballsbridge who put him in touch with Facebook. The company took the page down and wrote internally on the internet site to those involved with comments against his son. The page has not reappeared.
Colin has since moved schools, has been assessed by a hospital psychologist, is attending counselling and is continuing on a low dosage of prescribed anti-depressants over fears that he might self-harm.
Cyber-bullying is a relatively new phenomenon, which takes place on social networking sites, online forums and by email or text.
"Cyber-bullying was a tipping point for Colin," says Kevin. "What ensued was totally out of character for him as he was always an outgoing child. We involved the school he was attending immediately."
Since then, the mixed secondary school has put in place programmes dealing with bullying for teachers, parents and students.
A member of the school's Parents Association said: "The workshops that were held in the school were very informative. They explained what bullying is and what you should and shouldn't do when bullying behaviour is happening.
"The school has really benfited. Understanding what bullying is and the forms it can take are very important. What we learned helped us to put together a code of behaviour for the school. This is a good thing for any school to have."
Kevin O'Leary said: "We are not out of the woods with Colin and we are constantly having to measure his mindset
"I have faced many problems due to the financial downturn but none like this. We have tried to keep Colin busy by encouraging him to join sports clubs and meeting other friends in his new school, but the threat of bullying is always there and that is what we live in fear of.
"Only for finding a website dealing with bullying and going to a workshop, I don't know what would have happened.
"The workshops have really helped. My wife and I no longer feel alone in dealing with this. It's been a fast learning curve for us on how to get a handle on the internet and what technology-bullying can do to a family."
But Kevin is just one example of such horrific cases. Scores of parents are turning up to these workshops, which are run by support groups in schools and sports clubs, to help deal with the issue of bullying behaviour on the internet.
Although there is no specific legislation in place here which deals with cyber-bullying, there are online forums which offer an outlet for those affected by the problem.
Bully4U.ie is a website and support group set up in April this year by Jim Harding, who himself was a victim of bullying in the workplace. He stood up to his own bullies and won his case in court. But Jim is slow to speak about his own experience, except to say he wants to help others deal, in the right way, with bullying.
"Since the website was set up, schools have been contacting us who want to be proactive and tackle bullying," says Jim.
"We are being inundated with requests from schools requesting bullying and cyber-bullying workshops on how to deal with this problem. Parents want legislation introduced. It is taking over primary and secondary school classrooms."
Two other people are involved in running the website and group: Kevin Deering, a counsellor and retired garda juvenile liaison officer; and Jennifer Ryan, a career guidance counsellor with a masters degree in forensic psychology, specialising in bullying.
"It's estimated by those working in childcare that one in four children suffers from bullying," says Jim. "Cyberspace has created a bigger problem. We are not going to eliminate that but we can reduce it. Every school has their own policy on dealing with bullying, but many omit cyber-bullying from their policy.
"What we are finding is that children are extremely reluctant to tell their parents about cyber-bullying because they are afraid they will take their smartphones or computers away from them.
"We are providing information evenings for parents in schools at the request of parents' associations and principals, as most parents don't know what the warning signs are of cyber-bullying, nor how to deal with it."
Jim points out there are numerous Facebook pages being created by children as young as 10, bullying others. The legal age for using Facebook is 13.
The group believes computers and mobile phones should not be instantly taken away from children and teenagers. Continual usage-monitoring is viewed as a more calming approach.
"Teenagers, especially, are taking sexually explicit photographs of themselves and forwarding them on. This is known as 'sexting', which has serious consequences. Inevitably, many of these young relationships break up.
"These photographs are still out there and used for what is now termed as 'sextortion' due to the ease of access to computers and mobile phones.
"What the children fail to realise is that these photographs will be out there forever and are ending up on pornographic websites."
Jim says that children need to learn the dangers of the new technology available on their phones and computers.
"Legislation is not going to solve this, but really what we should be doing is educating them. Sexting is devastating lives. We are being inundated by schools and parents over their worries," adds Jim.
The Bully4U group provides information for parents, and workshops for schools, their teachers and parents. A recent study by Trinity College found that of an estimated 870,000 school-going population, approximately 23pc or 200,000 children are at risk of suffering the ill-effects of bullying.
Jim points out simply that computers and mobile phones allow strangers into your home, but if they called physically on your front door you would not allow them past you.
"The same vigilance applies to the internet and bullying," he adds.