The permanent accessibility of the internet for pupils has given rise to a new form of bullying, no longer subject to boundaries imposed by location or time.
Almost one in 10 children in the UK has been subject to cyberbullying, which accounts for over a third of bullying attacks reported by children, EU Kids Online research has shown.
Cyberbullying can range from nasty or hurtful messages being sent to the child, to videos of "happyslapping" attacks or private pictures being posted online. Two per cent of children in the UK told EU Kids Online they had been threatened online.
"Whereas before, there would perhaps be things written on school jotters or the toilet walls, there are a lot more sophisticated means now of young people actually doing that, and obviously it is not confined to the playground any more," says Pamela Graham, communications manager at Respectme, Scotland's anti- bullying service.
With young people having access to the internet in their bedrooms, their parents are often unaware of what their children are doing online.
The solution is not to attempt to disconnect children and young people from the internet, but to treat their online activities like activities in the "real world".
"To children and young people, the internet is a place, it is not a thing. It is somewhere they go to meet and converse with friends, swap stories, all the usual stuff, and adults should be taking the same interest in these online activities as they would if they were going into town or to the park and make sure they are safe," says Ms Graham.
Teachers cannot take a step back simply because the cyberbullying may take place beyond the school gates. "If a child or young person comes to you and says something has happened and they are scared or frightened, you really have to do something to help them," says Ms Graham.
Children are not the only victims of cyberbullying. The EIS teacher union estimates it receives between 50 and 60 complaints a year from teachers who have been cyberbullied, harassed and threatened online by their students. The real number of victims is expected to be much higher.
The Scottish Secondary Teachers' Association is calling for legislation to enable teachers to have content removed immediately. Its general secretary, Ann Ballinger, who was herself a victim of cyberbullying a few years ago (see panel, right), says her union is dealing with at least one case of cyberbullying at any one time.
"In the past, a pupil would have been cross with a teacher, gone home and told his pals and maybe his parents, and that would have been the end of it," says Ms Ballinger. "These days, they go online and make up all sorts of horrible things, and once it is out there it can't be taken away again."
Legislation has to be introduced that will allow people to contact the provider and have false allegations removed immediately, she says.
A spokesman for EIS adds: "It is important that all schools have guidelines in place regarding acceptable use of technology within the school environment, including policies on combating cyberbullying and online abuse."
There is little consistency in how schools and local authorities deal with cases of cyberbullying. Pamela Graham says that while some schools record incidents, others do not, and not all local authorities have procedures in place to monitor it.
Even efficient reporting procedures and removal of the material, or punishment of those responsible, cannot undo the emotional impact on victims, says Ms Ballinger.
"In a lot of ways it is too late, it is out there. That can be hugely difficult to live with. Even when it is taken off, people have read it," she says.
CASE STUDY: Ann Ballinger General secretary of the SSTA
It was 2006. There was a new pupil in school and his parents had complained that he was being bullied online by other kids.
A member of staff went online to check out the information.
What he came across was a site with a whole story about that boy. But he also found a link to another site, which had been set up supposedly by me.
Some of our pupils had manufactured an online conversation between me and another member of staff. They had taken a picture with their mobile phone camera of a poster of me, which was hanging in the staffroom, and doctored it.
They manufactured this social networking profile, I think it was MySpace. It was a fairly immature fourth and fifth-years' impression of an adult's sex life and some of it was quite graphic. By the time I saw it, the head had seen it.
I said I wanted it removed immediately. My local authority contacted MySpace and had the site removed. The pupils were identified and when they were brought in with their parents and confronted, some were horrified by what they had done and were very apologetic.
Most of their parents took very serious action. But there was one girl, the main producer of the pages, who had done it maliciously. I felt she was not dealt with appropriately. She didn't apologise and she never spoke to me again.
I now Google myself fairly regularly to see if there is anything I should be concerned about.
SCROLL THROUGH ADVICE ONLINE
- Scottish Government action plan on internet safety and responsible use: www.scotland.gov.ukTopicsPeopleYoungPeoplechildren- families178341025547745
- CEOP website for reporting inappropriate behaviour: www.ceop.police.uk
- ThinkYouKnow - CEOP information platform for children, parents and teachers: www.thinku know.co.ukteachers
- LTS advice for practitioners: www.ltscotland.org.ukusingglowandictinternet safetypractitioners.asp
- Respectme - Scotland's anti bullying service: www.respectme.org.uk
- Young Scot advice for young people on how to stay safe online: www.youngscot.org
- Childnet International leaflet on cyberbullying for school staff: www.childnet-int.orgdownloadstleaflet.pdf.