Why `technophobia' is the real enemy

Schools fail students by hiding from the online world, MSPs told

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Schools' ability to tackle cyberbullying is undermined by "technophobia" that leads to the blocking of YouTube, Instagram and other websites which could prove crucial in tackling the problem, MSPs heard this week.

YouTube had "fantastic" anti-bullying videos yet was one of the hardest things to access in schools, said Brian Donnelly, director of national anti-bullying service respectme. Schools needed to be bolder in opening up the internet, Mr Donnelly told the Scottish Parliament's Education Committee during a session on cyberbullying. He recalled being contacted by a journalist who had heard of a school banning the photo-messaging app Snapchat and assumed that a scandal had taken place. But "there was no scandal - it was just that the school did not want any access to social networking sites for fear it would distract children and young people," Mr Donnelly said.

He saw no logic in having heavy restrictions on social media in schools. "If it's part of your everyday life and it's part of.school, then you can talk about how to use it respectfully. If you block it, ban it and demonise it, you're not necessarily in a position to then engage about how it's used," he said.

In written evidence, respectme notes that adults frequently proclaim themselves "technophobes" and are vocal in disliking Facebook and Twitter. But, the submission continues, this is "no longer good enough" for anyone working with children.

"We cannot abdicate responsibility for this to software," it states. "We need to connect and learn about how young people use the internet and the phones or laptops they access it from."

Mr Donnelly said that schools sometimes made a false distinction between cyberbullying and bullying on their premises. "It's not about where bullying happens, it's about what happens," he said. "I've seen examples where people have told headteachers that they're scared because a threat was issued, and a teacher said, `That didn't happen here so I can't do anything about it.' "

Schools would be less reluctant to get involved if a child was neglected or not being fed, Mr Donnelly said.

Tony Rafferty, a member of the National Parent Forum of Scotland, told the committee that teachers should be free to exercise judgement about when to unblock a banned website. "It's imperative that teachers have the access to all the tools.but at the moment they [don't] because they can't go and access Instagram, they can't go and access Facebook, they can't go and access Twitter and say to children `If you do this, this is what happens'," he said.

Internet restrictions in schools often reached farcical proportions, Mr Rafferty added: a geography student searching for "Middlesex", for example, might be blocked because of the word's last three letters.

According to Laura Tomson, senior development officer at Zero Tolerance, a charity dealing with men's violence against women, the focus was too much on technology and not enough on the issues behind cyberbullying. She told the committee that evidence suggested young people knew how to stop people contacting them on social media but that they chose not to because of the pressures they faced.

"For example, girls getting harassed by boys for pictures of themselves in their bra might not delete those messages.because their friends tell them it's cool," Ms Tomson said.

Knowing how to block messages was not enough if a girl was being badgered by 50 texts a day from boys, she added. "I can't emphasise enough how schools.need to be brave enough to talk about those issues with young people."

Mr Rafferty said that students guilty of cyberbullying had sometimes copied examples set by parents, who were themselves bullying teachers online. He said he had been asked to help take down "horrific" remarks on Facebook about one school leader, and asked: "If the parents are doing it, how can you expect the children not to follow?"

Meanwhile, the Scottish government has announced new research that will look at young people's experiences of cyberbullying for the first time.

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