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Sinéad McDonough: 'Only new laws can protect our children from cyberbullies'


At risk: The victims of cyberbullying are getting younger. (Picture posed)

At risk: The victims of cyberbullying are getting younger. (Picture posed)

At risk: The victims of cyberbullying are getting younger. (Picture posed)

Recently, I received the following question from a 14-year-old: "​Why do we not have laws in Ireland like they have in other countries to protect young people against cyberbullying?"​ The question asked by this teenager is one that has really resonated with me, a question to which I could unfortunately provide no reasonable answer.

The internet has made bullying both harder to avoid and harder to identify. Cyberbullying is inescapable and can have devastating consequences for young people, making a child feel vulnerable and victimised.

It refers to bullying via digital devices, such as a mobile phones, computers and tablets. It can occur through text and messaging apps, online in social media forums or in gaming where people can view and participate in or share content.

Cyberbullying can take a myriad of forms including flaming - when an angry message is transmitted online; harassment; outing - revealing personal information about another that was shared in confidence; spreading rumours; and exclusion - leaving a child out of a group online, such as an online game.

It can also include cyberstalking - this form of cyberbullying can extend to the cyberbully making real threats to a child's physical wellbeing and or safety; and catfishing - when another person steals a child's online identity, usually photos, and re-invents social networking profiles for deceptive means. It can also present in the form of trickery - the act of gaining a child's trust so that they reveal secrets or embarrassing information that the cyberbully then reveals publicly online.

While education and parental monitoring and involvement in a child's online activity can assist in protecting them against cyberbullies, this is clearly not enough. It is clear that specific legislation concerning cyberbullying needs to be introduced in Ireland.

As one who educates young people in the area of online safety and cyberbullying, I'm often deeply concerned when approached by children as young as eight years old who disclose concerns around online bullying.

More recently, I received the question from the 14-year-old about cyberbullying and the need for laws in Ireland, as they have in other countries.

The question asked by this teenager is one that has really resonated with me, and I've struggled to find an answer. I too encounter distressed parents, aware that their child is being victimised online but feeling helpless when they learn that there are currently no laws that govern such behaviour in Ireland.

These parents express their feeling of isolation, with no place to turn when their child is faced with online bullying. Parents also express concern around the implications of cyberbullying on the wellbeing of their children.

The consequences for victims of online bullying can be fatal. In its most extreme and toxic forms, cyberbullying can put children and teenagers at risk. Research consistently highlights the consequences of bullying for the emotional and mental health of children and young people. Victims can experience lack of acceptance in their peer groups, which can result in helplessness and social isolation.

There are many detrimental outcomes related to cyberbullying that expand into the real world. Research has revealed links between cyberbullying and low self-esteem, family problems and academic difficulties.

Those who are cyberbullied show similar negative impacts to traditional victims, including depression, anxiety, psychosomatic problems, poor relationships, self-harm and suicidal ideation.

Many parents that I engage with are calling for tougher laws to govern cyberbullying and for harassment legislation to be amended to include messages sent on the ever-evolving multitude of social networking and social media platforms.

Earlier this year, the Government's Action Plan for Online Safety was launched. Although the plan is inclusive of some very productive measures, it tends to under-emphasise the urgency around appointing an office of Digital Safety Commissioner in Ireland. The Digital Safety Commissioner Bill 2017 proposes to "​provide for its functions to ensure the oversight and regulation of procedures for removal, by digital service undertakings, of harmful digital communications; to provide for the creation of codes of practice for digital services undertakings; to establish an advisory committee to the Digital Safety Commissioner and to provide for related matters".

If this Bill is enacted into law and follows functions held by offices in other countries, it may prove exceptionally useful, particularly for the youth of Ireland. In Australia, for example, the eSafety Commissioner's role covers not only content moderation, but the commissioner also has investigative powers in relation to complaints that are linked to cyberbullying.

Unfortunately, the plague of cyberbullying is here to stay and victims of online bullying appear to be getting younger.

There are currently no laws in Ireland that specifically address cyberbullying, and harassment laws have not been modernised to include messages sent on social media. It is essential that the Government addresses this issue as a matter of urgency and introduces laws specific to cyberbullying. These laws would give more power to law enforcement in Ireland to investigate specifically the more serious cases of online bullying where a child's life may be at risk.

  • Sinéad McDonough is a forensic psychologist with Safe Search Ireland

Irish Independent