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Executive Summary

Understanding cyberbullying

  • Cyberbullying can be defined as the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT), particularly mobile phones and the internet, deliberately to upset someone else. It can be an extension of face-to-face bullying, with technology providing the bully with another route to harass their target. However, it differs in several significant ways from other kinds of bullying: the invasion of home and personal space; the difficulty in controlling electronically circulated messages; the size of the audience; perceived anonymity; and even the profile of the person doing the bullying and their target.
  • Research into the extent of cyberbullying indicates that it is a feature of many young people’s lives. It also affects members of school staff and other adults; there are examples of staff being ridiculed, threatened and otherwise abused online by pupils.
  • Cyberbullying, like all bullying, should be taken very seriously. It is never acceptable, and a range of Education Acts and government guidance outline schools’ duties and powers in relation to bullying. The Education and Inspections Act 2006 (EIA 2006) includes legal powers that relate more directly to cyberbullying; it outlines the power of head teachers to regulate the conduct of pupils when they are off-site and provides a defence in relation to the confiscation of mobile phones and other items.
  • Although cyberbullying is not a specific criminal offence, there are criminal laws that can apply in terms of harassment and threatening and menacing communications. Schools should contact the police if they feel that the law has been broken.
  • Cyberbullying takes different forms: threats and intimidation; harassment or “cyber-stalking” (e.g. repeatedly sending unwanted texts or instant messages); vilification / defamation; exclusion or peer rejection; impersonation; unauthorised publication of private information or images (including what are sometimes misleadingly referred to as ‘happy slapping’ images); and manipulation.
  • Some cyberbullying is clearly deliberate and aggressive, but it is important to recognise that some incidents of cyberbullying are known to be unintentional and the result of simply not thinking about the consequences. What may be sent as a joke, may not be received as one, and indeed the distance that technology allows in communication means the sender may not see the impact of the message on the receiver. There is also less opportunity for either party to resolve any misunderstanding or to feel empathy. It is important that pupils are made aware of the effects of their actions.
  • In cyberbullying, bystanders can easily become perpetrators – by passing on or showing to others images designed to humiliate, for example, or by taking part in online polls or discussion groups. They may not recognise themselves as participating in bullying, but their involvement compounds the misery for the person targeted. It is recommended that anti-bullying policies refer to those ‘bystanders’ – better termed ‘accessories’ in this context – who actively support cyberbullying and set out sanctions for this behaviour. It is important that pupils are aware that their actions have severe and distressing consequences and that participating in such activity will not be tolerated.

Preventing cyberbullying

  • It is important to decide on the roles and responsibilities for cyberbullying prevention work. This will typically involve a named lead from the senior management team (usually the person with overall responsibility for anti-bullying work), as well as IT staff, pastoral care staff, and school council members.
  • Essential elements of prevention are awareness-raising and promoting understanding about cyberbullying. Awareness can be raised and understanding promoted through discussion and activity around what cyberbullying is and how it differs from other forms of bullying. The activities could include staff development activities; home-school events such as special assemblies with parents; and addressing cyberbullying within curriculum delivery and the Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL) programme.
  • It is important to review and update existing anti-bullying, behaviour and pastoral care policies to include cyberbullying. Ensure that learners, parents and staff are all aware of the procedures and sanctions for dealing with cyberbullying, including bullying that takes place out of school.
  • It is advised that schools establish, or review existing, Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs), referencing responsible use of school IT networks and equipment, Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) and mobile phones. It is also recommended that schools review how the school network is monitored and check whether existing procedures are adequate.
  • It is recommended that schools record and monitor incidents of cyberbullying in the same way as all other forms of bullying. Schools can use this information to develop their policies and practices.
  • Publicising reporting routes is an important element of prevention, raising awareness of the issue but also ensuring that any incidents can be stopped before they become too serious or upsetting. Make sure that learners, parents and staff are all aware of the different ways available to report cyberbullying incidents. In addition, schools can signpost information about external reporting routes, providing information about contacting service providers directly.
  • Education and discussion around the responsible use of technologies and e-safety are key to preventing cyberbullying and helping children and young people deal confidently with any problems that might arise, whether in or out of school. Technology can have a positive role in learning and teaching practice, and there is a need for staff to be confident about ICT in order to model the responsible and positive use of technologies and to respond to incidents of cyberbullying appropriately.
  • Stay up to date – prevention and responding strategies require continuous review and refinement as new technologies and services become popular. This guidance, similarly, will be updated periodically as technologies develop.
  • It is useful to publicise progress and cyberbullying prevention activities to the whole-school community. Keep cyberbullying a live issue and celebrate your successes.

Responding to cyberbullying

  • Cyberbullying is a form of bullying, and as such schools should already be equipped to deal with the majority of cyberbullying cases through their existing anti-bullying and behaviour policies and procedures. However, schools should recognise the ways in which cyberbullying differs from other forms of bullying and reflect that in how they respond to it. In addition to considerations about the invasiveness of cyberbullying, the size of the audience, and other such factors, cyberbullying yields evidence in a way that other forms of bullying do not.
  • The person being bullied will usually have examples of texts or emails received, and should be encouraged to keep these to aid in any investigation. There are also additional reporting routes available, through mobile phone companies, internet service providers and social networking sites. Detailed information on retaining evidence, containing incidents, and contacting the relevant organisations is provided in this guidance.
  • Some forms of cyberbullying involve the distribution of content or links to content, which can exacerbate, extend and prolong the bullying. There are advantages in trying to contain the spread of these, and options here include contacting the service provider, confiscating phones, and contacting the police (in relation to illegal content).
  • Advise those experiencing cyberbullying on steps they can take to avoid recurrence – for example, advise those targeted not to retaliate or reply; provide advice on ‘blocking’ or removing people from ‘buddy lists’; and ask them to think carefully about what private information they may have in the public domain.
  • Take steps to identify the person responsible for the bullying. Steps can include looking at the school system and computer logs; identifying and interviewing possible witnesses; and, with police involvement, obtaining user information from the service provider.
  • Once the person responsible for the cyberbullying has been identified, it is important that, as in other cases of bullying, sanctions are applied. Steps should be taken to change the attitude and behaviour of the bully, as well as ensuring access to any help that they may need. Schools will have existing sanctions in place for bullying behaviour, and these should apply equally to cyberbullying. In addition, it is important to refer to any Acceptable Use Policies (AUPs) for internet and mobile use, and apply sanctions where applicable and practical. Technology-specific sanctions for pupils engaged in cyberbullying behaviour could include limiting internet access for a period of time or removing the right to use a mobile phone on the school site, for example.