How social sites are a hunting ground for people with grudges
Be warned, writes Nikki Walsh, the school-yard bully has gone digital
Julia*(19) is a business student from Dublin. She and her boyfriend Declan (20) became victims of cyberbullying when photographs of her and Declan were Fotoshopped and uploaded onto Facebook portraying him as a pig.
"It was all done in jest, in a jokey, jokey way, but it was not very nice," admits Julia. "It would have been different if we knew the people involved, but we didn't so it was odd and sinister." Eventually Julia found out that the bully was an admirer of hers, hoping to undermine her boyfriend.
"I see him all the time," she says, "but I have never spoken to him. In fact, I stay well away from him now."
Julia's experience is not unusual. According to a study by the Anti-Bullying Centre at Trinity College, Dublin, one in seven teenagers are victims of cyber-bullying, with most of it occurring on social networking sites such as Facebook and Bebo.
It takes many forms -- repeatedly posting insults on people's 'walls'; starting online fights via email or instant messaging; posting embarrassing or humiliating photographs; tricking people into revealing secrets or sharing them online; impersonating people and posting material to damage their reputation; and even creating new sites under a person's name.
When Karen* (28) logged onto Facebook she found a new page under her name, using her original profile photograph. "Someone had created a new page for me, listing a whole new set of activities and interests in my profile, including 'sleeping around'. There were also postings on my wall calling me a slut. I was shocked."
Karen made a complaint and the site was closed down, but she did not know who created it until months later when she split up with her boyfriend and discovered it was the work of his ex-girlfriend. She has left Facebook now.
"It is not worth it," she said. "You have no idea who could be raking through your photographs. It's the perfect hunting ground for people with grudges or jealous exes."
While cyberbullying doesn't happen in person, it can, for that reason, be far more brutal than normal bullying. "People say things online that they would never actually say to each other's faces," says Julia.
"In schools, all fights are conducted through Facebook," she explains.
Frances Sweetman teaches civics in Dublin. "Most of the children I teach believe that if you put your photograph and your personal information on Facebook, you are asking for a bit of flak," she says.
According to A Parent's Guide to Social Networking Sites, some 28pc of teens say they do not know what to do if they are harassed or bullied online. Most do nothing. Julia and her boyfriend did not approach their bully, nor did Karen.
So, what should they be doing? Online experts advise everyone to avoid contact with the bully; block their access to the site; change their online information where necessary; file a report or lodge a complaint with the site and, if need be, to delete their account.
Sinead* (32) left Facebook last year after an ex began posting notes on her wall. "I am glad I didn't feed it," she says. "It was much more effective to just leave and not get embroiled in anything nasty or emotionally draining. As soon as I left, that was the end of it. I never heard from him again."
There are also measures anyone can take to avoid being bullied, as detailed by Facebook on their site (see below).
So how can parents protect their teens from cyberbulling? Communication is key -- WiredSafety.org research shows that teenagers who discuss social networking websites with their parents behave more cautiously online, so parents should open up a discussion on cyberbullying, educating their teens about how cyberbullies can use their personal information against them and discussing what information is appropriate for them to share online.
Boundaries should also be set. Teens should be wary of anyone who they do not know who wants to join their networks and they should be told not to meet anyone they've met online.
Left unchecked, the effects of cyberbullying can be devastating -- just last month, English-born school girl Holly Grogan jumped to her death after years of being cyberbullied. In a statement her family said: "Holly struggled to cope with the huge pressures placed upon her by the modern complexities of 'friendship groups' and social networking."
* Names have been changed