The web of fear

Sandra Scott explains how the sinister psychological pressure exerted on a victim by a faceless cyberbully breeds fear and paranoia

Cyberbullying - defined by Childnet International as "sending or posting harmful or cruel text or images using the internet or other digital communication devices" - is a new and growing form of psychological intimidation. It is bullying without getting your hands dirty.

A recent survey by Goldsmiths College in London showed that up to a quarter of students had been cyberbullied. Girls were more likely to be harassed by phone, while boys tended to be victims of text messaging, picturevideo clips or websites.

The impact can be significant because the bully usually operates under the cloak of anonymity, which can make the victim feel defenceless and increasingly paranoid. A faceless attacker is invariably more sinister than a known one. Not only is the bully unknown: so are the when and how of the next attack.

So how can you deal with a problem when you know so little about it? There's quite a lot of information on the web, but the problem is you don't know your adversary. The unknown allows the imagination to take over.

Anxiety leads to fearful predictions of catastrophe. Each thought becomes more terrifying than the last, and increasingly unrealistic. The bully could stop attacks and the victim's mind would still complete the job of suffering and intimidation. Thus the degree of impact on the victim can rapidly become disproportionate to the triggering event.

Yet the remoteness can remove the guilt "feedback", allowing the bully to run riot. "Digital bullies lack face-to-face contact with their victims; they may not know the amount of suffering imposed and consequently do not experience feelings of regret, sympathy or compassion." (Schneier, 2003).

Hence, it can escalate faster than normal bullying.

Picturevideo clips can be the most damaging of all. Their intrusive and personal nature exposes the vulnerability of an individual to a very wide audience, so the humiliation is on a grand scale. Shinobu, an overweight, first year high school student in Osaka, Japan, was secretly filmed naked in the gym changing room. By the time he returned to the classroom, he was already the laughing stock of the school (Paris Strom, Auburn University and Robert Strom, Arizona State University, "Bullied by a Mouse", 2004).

According to the Goldsmiths survey, a third of victims don't report the attacks, perhaps because they are ashamed and feel nothing can be done. But teachers can help combat this by building close relationships with pupils and working with them. The need is urgent, as "Chat is the number one online activity among teenagers." (Roberts and Foehr, 2004) Dr Sandra Scott is a psychiatrist and consultant on Big Brother What schools can don Make sure parents are aware of the school's code of conduct on e-communications, so it can be applied at home as well as at school. Inform parents of the school's right to monitor their children's emails.

* Ensure the firewalls, filtering and monitoring software are all up to date and that password access is secure and frequently changed.

* Use blocking software to stop instant messages from certain people and use mail filters to block emails from specific email addresses.

* Contact individual mobile phone operators to help in serious cases.

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