Did you know?
* Some bullies set up websites dedicated to making other children's lives a misery. If you can trace the hosting company, it will probably agree to close any offensive site.
* Persistently sending abusive texts or emails is illegal. It breaches the Telecommunications Act and may constitute harassment.
* One child in five who uses an internet chatroom claims to have been harassed online, and one in six claims to have been the victim of abusive text messages.
* ChildLine reported a 50 per cent rise in calls from bullied children in 2004, with abusive texts and emails partly responsible for the increase.
* It is possible to trace the computer network from which emails have been sent, but that may not be enough to pinpoint individual culprits.
The children's charity ChildLine took 31,000 calls from bullied children in the year to March 2004, up from 21,000 in the previous 12 months. Despite all the efforts and initiatives of schools and voluntary organisations, it seems bullying just won't go away. Part of the problem is that children are finding new ways to harass their peers. As well as name-calling in the corridor or provocation in the playground, children now have the option of bullying by text message, email, chatroom or even via specially constructed hate websites. This is the age of the cyber bully.
Hi-tech bullying isn't a new phenomenon. In 1999, 15-year-old Gail Jones from Merseyside killed herself by taking an overdose after receiving 20 abusive messages in half an hour; and research in 2002 by the children's charity NCH (formerly National Children's Homes) found 4 per cent of children aged 11 to 19 had received threatening or abusive emails from other children.
But it's in the past two years that cyber bullying has really taken hold, with ChildLine counsellors reporting a marked increase in calls about abusive texts and emails. As 90 per cent of UK children now have email access at school or at home, it is an easy means for girls and boys alike to attack fellow pupils in a way that makes it difficult (but not impossible) to trace the perpetrator. It also means there are few witnesses. The victim may be alone in his or her room being constantly bombarded with nasty messages but with no one present to offer comfort or help. Setting up a fake email address takes minutes, so the potential for anonymity means bullies can claim to be voicing opinions held by many. "We all hate you!" can be difficult to ignore in cyber-space when the victim has no idea how many are in on the message.
Text messages may have made the lives of English teachers a misery, but this is nothing compared to the experiences of the 16 per cent in the NCH survey who had received bullying messages. Texting is a form of cyber bullying particularly prevalent among girls. According to Liz Carnell, director of the anti-bullying charity Bullying Online, the typical perpetrator is aged 13 to17 and her victim is a former friend with whom she has fallen out. While boys are more likely to physically assault or humiliate those they want to attack, girls will tend to use more psychological methods. Girls are often more articulate and manipulative than boys, and will try to exclude socially those they dislike, turn the victim's friends against her and make their target aware of her isolation.
A typical message would be: "We r all going to the shops and we don't want u 2 come."
When boys do send bullying texts, they tend to threaten violence. The relative difficulty in defining deliberate social exclusion, compared to physical assault, may be one reason why girls are statistically less likely to report bullying than boys.
Cheap software packages give any moderately ICT-literate teenagers the ability to construct their own website. Creative bullies can easily set up sites dedicated to spreading malicious rumours about other children, or just targeting abuse at them. Word of the site's address will be spread at school and the "underground" nature will add to its allure. Pupils will log on to read or add to the comments. As the site's owner is not immediately apparent, the victim can feel it is impossible to do anything about it.
Some examples are so offensive, including threats of violence or racist abuse, that they break the law. "The police say they prefer to have these sites shut down rather than prosecute those who put them up," says Ms Carnell. "But these people get away with it and start up another one."
Chatrooms and noticeboards
Some internet chatrooms set up by local youth services or clubs have been hijacked to act as noticeboards for nasty comments. In August 2004, one website, Mouth2Mouth, was shut down after complaints. The site had been set up as a community chatroom for pupils in north London and Hertfordshire, but it soon became a repository for vicious rumours, many of a sexual nature, and racist taunts. Hertfordshire police investigated some of the threats, but by September the site was up and running again in a new guise.
Research by the University of Central Lancashire in 2002 showed that one in five children aged nine to16 had used a chatroom. Of those, one in five had been harassed there. One in seven admitted to harassing another user.
The bully can hide...
It's easy for a bully to remain anonymous while sending emails or phone texts - or even to adopt a false identity. Some websites enable you to send text messages to a mobile phone. They ask for your own mobile number but don't always verify that it is genuine, so children can enter someone else's number and the text message will appear to have come from that phone. There have been reports of children "framing" classmates by sending nasty text messages in this way, usually in an attempt to break up a friendship. This type of bullying relies on a good grasp of social dynamics and is mostly favoured by girls.Anonymity also means some children are tempted to behave in ways they wouldn't usually contemplate; they become bullies only behind the cloak of anonymity afforded by cyber-space. "Young people routinely use online environments to experiment with identities and personalities," says Charlotte Barrow, who conducted the University of Central Lancashire research. What they then do with these personalities is uncertain.
...their target can't
Abusive messages can feel more personal than physical attack. The fact that the harassment can penetrate a victim's home sometimes makes it more upsetting than abuse hurled in a school playground. These messages stay with the victim, and there have been reports of siblings and parents receiving messages to further humiliate the target, so there seems no escape, no refuge. "Children used to be able to go home and shut the door on their bullies; now the harassment follows them home. It's unrelenting," says John Carr of NCH.
Linda Frost, senior bullying counsellor for the children's charity Kidscape, says the victims of cyber bullying are more likely to self-harm; a girl alone in her room receiving text messages has no one to lash out at except herself. Cyber bullies are also less likely to stop of their own accord, because they see no consequences. "If they send an email or text message they are not seeing the reaction of the victim so there's no remorse built in, it's very impersonal," says Linda Frost. "I had a case where one girl organised all her classmates to send text messages to one girl saying, 'Kill yourself, we hate you'. The cumulative effect was devastating, but the motivation was just stupidity - the girl thought it would be a lark."
Where can children turn for help?
In the NCH research, 29 per cent of respondents had told no one about the bullying. Of those who spoke up, 42 per cent told a friend, 32 per cent a parent. The University of Central Lancashire research showed that children would be much more likely to inform chatroom moderators and internet service providers; 58 per cent said they would seek help this way. Sixteen per cent said they would tell no one. The contemporary nature of cyber bullying may make it difficult for children to turn to older people for help. Many parents, for example, admit that the technology underpinning the phenomenon is a mystery to them. Children see this as another barrier to their problem being properly understood. "Recent surveys have asked children, 'What is your most prized possession?' and an overwhelming majority have put their mobile phone at or near number one," says Mr Carr.
"And they're scared that if they tell their parents they will be told, 'Well, if it's causing you so much grief, I'm going to take it away', which is, of course, not the right approach. Many parents and teachers understand bullying in the playground because it happened to them. None of this will have done."
Bullying and the law
Another possibility, though one few teenagers are likely to take without adult support, is to turn to the police. Sending offensive texts or emails or making malicious phone calls may breach the 1984 Telecommunications Act.
If the messages are grossly offensive, indecent or menacing, or they are being persistently sent with the aim of causing annoyance or needless anxiety, sending them is illegal. Under the 1994 Harassment Act, repeated messages sent as a course of action that causes distress may also be criminal. Harassment carries a maximum sentence of five years. Ms Carnell suggests police be told early on to warn off the perpetrators, although there have been few prosecutions.
The role of the school
"Abusive messaging tends to be less well dealt with than physical bullying," says Ms Frost. "With emails bullies can claim it wasn't them, and the school will know only if the child reports it. Children who can't prove something has happened will get into the cycle of keeping it to themselves and thinking, 'It's me - there's something wrong with me'."
Teachers' knowledge is variable. "There are wonderful schools out there which are on the ball and very supportive, running peer group mentoring and all sorts of things. Others are unwilling to accept there are issues. Cyber bullying may happen outside school hours, but it still reflects on school achievement. There's a grey line of responsibility that says, 'If it happens out of school, it's not my issue'."
Shutting the bullies down
If teachers or parents discover a hate website, the hosting company (the firm that makes the site available on the web) can be traced and contacted to shut it down. To trace the website owner and the hosting company, go to www.geektools.com. Enter the "Who is" section and type in the website address. It will give the full names, addresses and phone number of the site owner, and the name of the company hosting the site. If it is a company offering free webspace, the name of the site owner may not be available. Sending the host company an email saying that one of its sites is delivering abuse should prompt it to close it. Pointing out that the site may be in breach of the Telecommunications Act is often a good strategy.
The media has become aware of the problem; a recent storyline in the teen soap Hollyoaks concentrated on the issue. When the Mouth2Mouth site got out of hand, victims and their parents complained to the site's host. It initially failed to act, but relented when Hertfordshire police and Liz Carnell got involved. "I sat in the forum and kept posting messages explaining the effect these abusive postings might have on someone who was distressed," she says. "And how they could be guilty of harassment as well as breaking the Telecommunications Act. After I explained how easy it would be for the police to trace these individuals, the forums started shutting down. Many of those posting expressed the wish to have the forum closed."
Shutting the bullies up
Emails are more difficult to trace, although it is possible to pinpoint the computer network a message is sent from. To do this, recipients need to set the options on their email account header to show the sender's IP address (four sets of digits separated by decimal points, for example, 188.8.131.522) then cross-refer against internet registry records (freely available on the web) which will indicate which computer cluster the email was sent from. Full instructions are available on the For Kids By Kids Online site. But free email accounts can be set up within minutes, and if messages are sent from an internet cafe or a public computer in a school, identifying the sender is difficult. Victims are best advised to change email address and give out the new one to trusted people only.
Text messages can also be avoided by changing phone numbers, which any of the phone operators should do free for anyone suffering harassment (at least for the first number change; more than one change and the operator may charge you). They usually wait until a certain number of messages have been received or you have reported the calls to the police. Some companies are developing technology to bar calls and texts from certain numbers, but this won't stop the bullies using one of their friends' phones instead.
This is why buying a new sim card, which immediately gives you a new number, is often the best option. Service providers, with the police, will almost always be able to trace a call or message and they can stop that person making any calls or sending any messages - although the trail may end with a pay-as-you-go mobile without the perpetrator's name.
On the horizon
Many threatening emails and messages are of the "We are watching you""We know where you live" variety. The increasing use of picture messaging and 3G video phones can make victims feel especially unsafe as they are sent concrete proof that they are being followed or observed.
ChildLine noticed a significant rise in the numbers of calls about text bullying in the early months of 2001, which it put down to a rise in the number of children being given pay-as-you-go mobile phones for Christmas.
With Britain's main operators now rolling out their 3G systems, video stalking could become a big problem this year.
Main text: Gareth Rubin. Additional research: Sarah Jenkins Next week: Exam appeals