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1. Understanding Cyberbullying

1.5 BRIEF INTRODUCTION TO THE TECHNOLOGY

Mobile phones

1.5.1Children and young people use their mobile phones for much more than talking and texting. The most additional common uses include telling the time, downloading and forwarding pictures and film clips, checking email and accessing the internet, listening to music, and playing games. The wide range of activities phones are used for, coupled with the phone’s role in managing young people’s different social networks, makes the phone a powerful and important tool.

1.5.2 As well as being able to store music, take photos and video and send these to other phones, children can also share this content with other phones via short range wireless connections. Wireless personal area network technology uses radio waves, providing a free way for enabled devices (phones, computers, handheld game consoles) in close range of each other to share information.

Benefits: Mobile phones allow children to stay in touch with, and be contacted by friends and family, parents and carers. They can be useful in emergency situations, and they can allow children a greater sense of independence. They can be used for storing files, taking notes, capturing evidence, and research via an internet connection.

Risks: Supervising a young person’s use of their mobile phone is far harder than, for example, their use of the family computer, since phones are rarely shared and potentially always on.

It is very easy for children to create and circulate content, including inappropriate content. Using a short range wireless connection, content can be sent for free between enabled devices. Once forwarded, content is almost impossible to control, and can easily spread by being passed on.

Mobiles and bullying: Mobiles have been used to cyberbully in a number of different ways: making nasty calls; sending nasty text messages; taking and sharing humiliating images; videoing and sharing acts of bullying and assault via camera phone (sometimes misleadingly called ‘Happy Slapping’, see note at 1.3.13). Content can be posted online or sent from phone to phone, or shared using a short range wireless connection between devices, bypassing the phone network altogether.

Instant Messenger and Voice Over Internet Protocols

1.5.3Instant messenger (IM) is an application that allows the pupil to chat in real time (i.e. live) with people on a pre-selected friend/buddy list. IM programmes usually require you to download an application to your computer, although there are some web-based services available which do not need installing.

1.5.4 IM programmes let you see which of your contacts are online when you are, and let you chat using text while you are using your computer. Like social networking sites, IM services work between a network of people who have signed up to the same service and given each other permission to see and talk to each other when they are online. Unlike chatrooms, which are typically public and open to anyone signed up to the chat service, IM is more private, usually taking place between two people. Windows Live Messenger (previously called MSN Messenger) is a popular IM programme; however, there are several different types of IM services.

1.5.5 Voice Over Internet Protocols (VOIP) programmes are becoming increasingly popular since they offer unlimited free phone calls anywhere in the world, using an internet connected computer and microphone. Again, calls can only take place between people who have downloaded the same application. Services like Windows Live Messenger include IM, voice calling and video conferencing.

Benefits: Typically children use instant messenger as an extension of their regular social lives, to talk to friends outside of school. IM is a quick and effective way of keeping in touch, and is a good social tool. IM is also used by some teachers to keep in touch with students – in order to check through homework, for example. IM is extremely useful for some types of collaborative work and research. Some IM programmes keep records of IM conversations or at least offer this facility, which can be used as evidence of work or as an example of problem solving (it is a good idea to activate this function as it serves as the best evidence when making a report of cyberbullying).

Risks: Some Instant Messenger products can hold up to 600 ‘buddies’, or contacts, and some children may see having as many ‘friends’ as possible as important. It is usually common for people with large buddy lists to know only a small proportion of the people on their list. 

IM and bullying: Bullies can use IM to send nasty messages or content to other users. People can also ‘hack’ into IM accounts and send nasty messages to contacts.

Chatrooms and Message Boards

1.5.6There are many chat sites online, hosted by major service providers such as AOL as well as by smaller independent websites. Typically chatrooms are thematically organised around interest, age, or location. Chatrooms allow groups of people from across the world to hold text (and sometimes voice) conversations in real time.

Benefits: Most chatrooms have a theme or topic, so it is possible to meet others from all around the world with the same interest as you and exchange ideas. Often people assume different identities in chatrooms, which means they can be free from real world stereotypes, such as age, race and appearance. For young people this can be an easy way to meet new people, or explore issues which they are too shy to talk about in person. Since many people can join in and observe a conversation at one time, chatrooms are very useful for collaborative work. Most chatroom programmes record conversations too.

Message boards allow different people to add replies to discussion topics, creating chains of replies around particular topics, which make take place over several months. Some message boards are moderated – no new messages will be published publicly until the owner reviews them – but many others are monitored only by users, who are expected to report any inappropriate messages.

Risks: Public chatrooms can be populated by anyone, since accounts usually only require an email address to verify a user’s identity. Most chatrooms do not carry age verification; therefore children can visit chatrooms of an adult nature.  People can behave inappropriately or abusively. The nature of chatroom exchanges tends to be less inhibited than when people meet in the real world for the first time, and children can be persuaded to give out too much personal information and contact details. Chatrooms are not necessarily moderated (by a person observing conversations as they happen) or monitored (by someone reviewing previous chat session transcripts). There have been cases of adults using public chatrooms to begin relationships with children and young people in order to sexually abuse them (see Resources section for educational and awareness materials in this and other internet safety areas).

Chatrooms and Message boards and bullying: Nasty or threatening messages can be sent, without the target necessarily knowing who they are from. Groups may ostracise and ignore individual children. Children and young people may be persuaded to give out private information, or enter into apparent friendships with people who are lying to them about who they are in order to develop a friendship which they later exploit.

Email

1.5.7Email is now an essential part of most people’s working lives.  Email accounts are provided by schools, broadband providers or other internet companies.

Benefits: As well as the obvious communication benefits, web-based email addresses do not require external verification and such ‘disposable’ accounts can be extremely useful for entering competitions and other activities that generate unwanted or spam email.

Risks: Email can be used to send inappropriate images and to forward private information. Computer viruses and spam are common email hazards. Web-based email can also be used by people wanting to remain anonymous in order to send malicious or nasty mail.

Email and bullying: People can send bullying or threatening messages via email, or repeatedly send unwanted messages. Unsuitable images or video clips can be passed on. Personal emails can be forwarded inappropriately. The majority of computer viruses are forwarded by email.

Webcams

1.5.8Webcams are small digital cameras which work with computers. They can be used to record photographs or video, which can then be posted on the internet or forwarded. Most commonly, they are used to see someone that you are talking to online.

Benefits: Webcams let you see, in real time (i.e. live), people you are chatting to, places or events. They can have educational value – they can bring far-off places to life; be used to view experiments; be used for video-conferencing; and be used to facilitate collaboration between schools in different parts of the country or the world. They can also help families to keep in touch with friends and relatives.

Risks: Children have been persuaded to take or send inappropriate photographs of themselves, either by their friends or by people they have only had contact with online. Webcam use can be difficult to supervise if the computer is in a child’s bedroom or private space. Although fairly rare, there have been cases of people using virus programmes that can ‘hijack’ the output of a remote webcam and send the images to their own computers.

Webcams and bullying: Children can be persuaded or threatened into doing things on a webcam that they might not have otherwise done – undressing or acting in unsuitable ways, for example. Once someone else has content the child or young person would not like their parents to know about or be made public, they are at risk of being further manipulated or threatened.  

Social network sites

1.5.9Popular social networking websites such as MySpace and Bebo let users create their own homepages, set up ‘blogs’ and add friends.

1.5.10 Social network sites typically allow users to set up a profile page, listing their interests and other details, and they enable contact with other users. Many focus on interests or services – for example, photo storage and sharing (like Flickr), music preferences (like last.fm) or education (like EduSpaces). They may also provide ‘blogging’ or other website creation tools.

1.5.11 Social network sites are designed to help people find and make friends, and to make it easy to stay in touch.

Benefits: Young people use online space in much the same way that they use offline space – they socialise with friends and other people online, express themselves, and meet up in much the same way as they might do at youth clubs or shopping centres. These sites provide them with public and private space, and let them express themselves creatively by selecting and creating content. Young people can usually set permissions, giving them control over who can access their profiles and pages.

Risks: Many young people view the social network site they use as the hub of their online activity and will spend a lot of time on the look and content of their pages. Profiles and blogs may contain a lot of detailed and personal information – about themselves and their friends. This can be misused by bullies and sexual predators to gain information about an individual, their interests and tastes as well as their location or contact details. Children and young people often mistakenly view publicly available sites as private and personal places, and may post photographs for their immediate friends which may be inappropriate or embarrassing in other contexts. Sites which are not made private, or registered as belonging to an over 18 year old, are easy to search for and may be indexed and cached by search engines such as Google. Staff members and parents may view the time spent on social network sites as inappropriate and excessive, since many young people will check their sites several times a day for messages and to view their friends’ activity.

Social networking and bullying: Social Network sites can be abused in a number of ways. Most allow comments to be left (although some sites enable users to review / approve content before it is shown), and nasty comments may be posted. People might use their own sites to spread rumours or make unpleasant comments about other people, or post humiliating images or video of them. Fake profiles are also fairly common, and these might be used to pretend to be someone else in order to bully, harass or get them into trouble.

Video-hosting sites

1.5.12Images and video can be posted to blogs, social networking sites, and sent by email. There has been a tremendous rise in the popularity of video-hosting sites, such as YouTube, where clips are uploaded and shared. Popular video clips can be seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors to the sites, and clips are rated by viewers and comments (including video comments) can be posted about them. The video footage can also be embedded in other sites and pages.

Benefits: There can be a lot of good content to view on these sites – music videos, funny clips and other entertainment, as well as useful resources, including educational resources. Even internet safety and anti-bullying videos can be found on these sites. Video is stored on and streamed from the sites themselves, which means that viewing is very easy.

Risks: There are two ways that children may be exposed to risk on video-hosting sites: children may access inappropriate material (for example, violent or pornographic content), and they may post inappropriate material, which might make them contactable and vulnerable or which might lead to embarrassment of themselves or others.

Video-hosting and bullying: Video-hosting sites can be misused for cyberbullying, and staff as well as pupils have been victim to content posted up on such sites. The cyberbullying may take the form of video taken without the subject’s knowledge, even from within class, that is then posted and shared, and/or acts of violence against people or property.

Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs)

1.5.13Many schools now use software that creates a site especially designed for education, called a Virtual Learning Environment (or VLE). Programmes such as Moodle allow school staff to set assignments, tests and activities and to track their students’ progress. A VLE might only be available from the school network, or might be accessible from any internet connection (i.e. from home).

Benefits: VLEs provide a structured way for staff to set work and deadlines, and for students to complete activities, submit assignments, and to communicate and collaborate with others from their school community. These sites are typically password protected, to enable closed working environments and to track the learners’ progress through tasks. They can enable students to access resources from home.

Risks: If the site is accessible from any internet location, schools will want to ensure that a specific ‘Acceptable Use Policy’ is in place – although users are tracked, students need to be aware of appropriate and acceptable behaviour. It is also important that staff are aware of data protection issues, and how to respond to reports or discovery of offensive messages or images. Ensuring that passwords are kept private is important, so that accounts are not accessed or misused by anyone else.

VLEs and bullying: Although users are tracked, students may still misuse the platform or post inappropriate messages or images. VLEs usually consist of a range of tools – for example, message boards, chatrooms, and Instant Messaging – that can be misused in the same ways as services outside of the school environment. Hacking can provide a range of opportunities for cyberbullying – including sending nasty messages from someone’s account, posting inappropriate comments, and deleting schoolwork.

Gaming sites, consoles and virtual worlds

1.5.14A significant amount of the time young people spend using technology is taken up playing the wide variety of computer games that are available. Computer games can be accessed through online gaming sites, where chat between players across the world is facilitated, or on handheld consoles which use a wireless connection to enable people in the same location to play against each other or to message one another. Virtual worlds – 2 or 3D online sites where users are encouraged to design their own avatars (the figures that represent them in the virtual world), explore and create their own environments – are becoming increasingly popular.

Benefits: Gaming has been shown to help develop many positive skills – leadership and decision-making, puzzle solving, teamwork and collaboration. Games that involve physical movement (dance mats, for example) can provide children and young people with a fun way to exercise. There are now many ways of using game software within education – e.g. Wordshark, which is a collections of games designed to support students with dyslexia.

Virtual worlds can be used to explore and bring to life a range of topics – for example, recreating ancient cities or building virtual prototypes.

Risks: Many games are designed for the adult market and are inappropriate for children and young people, containing adult themes and explicit imagery, although games should carry labels which indicate the age they are appropriate for. Parents will often want to limit the amount of time spent on games, since completing levels and finishing will be fairly addictive in any effective game. Games and virtual worlds accessed online will be harder to monitor for appropriateness of content.

Gaming sites, consoles and virtual worlds and bullying: As with other programmes that allow people to communicate with one another, there have been instances of name-calling and abusive / derogatory remarks. Additionally, players may pick on weaker or less experienced users, repeatedly killing their character. Wireless-enabled consoles can be used to forward unwanted messages to other compatible devices.