The phenomenon of cyberbullying was brought to public attention last week when diver and sixth-form pupil Tom Daley found himself the target of an online attack following his performance at the 2012 Olympic Games.
The 18-year-old, who attends Plymouth College in Devon, received Twitter messages threatening to drown him and telling him he had "let down" his late father, who died from brain cancer last year. The subsequent arrest of a 17-year-old boy prompted much debate about freedom of speech. But it also highlighted a form of abuse that is a growing problem, even for primary school children.
A recent study by the charity Beatbullying found that 21 per cent of children aged 8-11 had been deliberately targeted, threatened or humiliated by an individual or group through the use of mobile phones or the internet. The research, which questioned more than 1,500 children, found that in 46 per cent of cases online abuse took place over a prolonged period of time by the same person or group.
"This is clearly not the kind of behaviour that can be dismissed as just childish or harmless messing around; some of this content can be seen to cross a line into severe bullying, possibly predatory behaviour," said the report.
The study also found that girls are more likely than boys to be targeted: 26 per cent said they had been abused in this way, compared with 18 per cent of the opposite sex. An earlier study by Beatbullying found that 28 per cent of 11- to 16-year-olds had been cyberbullied, suggesting that the problems worsen as pupils get older.
"It is easier to say something horrible to someone online than it would be to say it to them face to face," said Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive of Beatbullying. "Young people behave in this way because they feel as if they can get away with it online, and there won't be the same consequences and repercussions."
Sue Minto, head of the ChildLine helpline, agrees. "There is no doubt people speak much more freely if they are using technology," she told TES. "Children are absolutely aware they are bullying a real person, but there is a danger they get sucked into the freedom of speech the internet brings and they can't drag it back."
Between April 2011 and March 2012, ChildLine received 2,410 calls for help, either via telephone or through the internet, about cyberbullying.
Psychologist Tanya Byron told attendees at a TES conference on cyberbullying last month that the advent of social media meant problems traditionally left in the playground now continue after the end of the school day. "It's easy to get carried away when you're in your bedroom having a giggle with your girlfriends and you can't see the tears in someone's eyes," she said.
But "draconian measures" taken by many schools to shut down pupils' online worlds only encourage them to explore further and without supervision, Professor Byron warned. Teachers must ensure they are fully informed so they can help pupils to understand digital media, she said.
At St Stephen's Junior School in Canterbury, Kent, children are taught how to use the internet safely, with workshops also laid on for parents about how to keep their children safe online. "We know we are not going to stop children using chat rooms and other sites, so our strategy is to get them to feel comfortable talking to parents and teachers if they have a problem," said headteacher Stuart Pywell.
Teachers have the power to confiscate mobile phones if pupils use them in a disruptive or bullying way. But Beatbullying's Mr Piggin said it could be difficult for children to admit to being victims of cyberbullying because of worries that parents would stop them accessing the internet or take away their mobile phones.
He is also concerned that some schools see cyberbullying as a "technical" issue or something that is only covered in ICT lessons. "This is a behavioural issue," said Mr Piggin. "You rarely find that children are being bullied and not also being cyberbullied."
Visit www.tes.co.uk to find resources on how to tackle cyberbullying among pupils, including:
Netiquette: teach pupils good online manners with a list of dos and don'ts (tinyurl.combmvmhfr).
Online social guidelines: a colourful booklet to help parents and pupils stay safe online (tinyurl.comcf73msq).