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Cyberbullying (Children)

Volume 472: debated on Wednesday 20 February 2008

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Liz Blackman.]

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise concerns relating to cyberbullying among schoolchildren and to make my right hon. Friend the Minister for Children, Young People and Families directly aware of a case in my constituency. She may be interested to hear that while I was preparing for the debate, teachers’ representative bodies contacted me to express their concern. They, like others, have had to develop new guidelines and advice for professionals on how to deal with such incidents.

Owing to the growth in new technology, and particularly the popularity of camera phones and video-sharing websites, there has been an increase in bullying that relies on those formats. It is commonly known as cyber-bullying. The unsavoury term most associated with cyberbullying is happy-slapping, whereby an unsuspecting victim is attacked while an accomplice records the assault, commonly with a camera phone or smart phone. A more inappropriate descriptive term could not have been coined; there is nothing happy about such incidents. Indeed, they are the ultimate humiliation and leave many young people devastated.

The Government have made tackling bullying in schools a priority, and the Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Kevin Brennan), has made it clear to me that no form of bullying should be tolerated. Bullying in our schools should be taken very seriously. It is not a normal part of growing up, and it can ruin lives. My interest in cyberbullying issues developed following a complaint received from one of my constituents. The family wished to remain anonymous, and I respect and understand the reason why: they believe that their child has been through enough. The child’s father wrote to me, expressing deep concern about the fact that his son was assaulted while on school premises, and the incident posted on the video-sharing internet site YouTube. My constituent asked me to view the footage, and I was appalled by the content. His child was ambushed from behind and physically attacked in the most sickening way. The perpetrator was seen laughing, along with other pupils who aided the assault. The footage was classified on YouTube as comedy and entertainment.

I would like to make my right hon. Friend the Minister aware that the headmaster of the school took the incident very seriously. I understand that the police visited the boy who assaulted the pupil. However, my right hon. Friend will know that there is no consistent way of dealing with those problems in our schools. I hope she agrees that often young people who participate in cyberbullying mistakenly think that camera phones and the internet will provide them with anonymity, allowing them to target other young people and/or teachers without fear of identification or retribution.

I firmly believe that video-sharing and social websites have allowed young people to communicate in a positive way. I am not against people enjoying the internet, being proud of cinematography and wanting to post videos for others to enjoy, but it is clear that such sites have a darker side. They act as a channel for bullying. Recently, my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) drew our attention to the tragedy of young people, many of them seeking support and guidance, choosing to take their own lives after using social networking sites.

I recognise that the vast majority of the UK internet industry takes a responsible approach to the content that it hosts, both of its own volition and in co-operation with law enforcement and Government agencies. However, I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend worked with websites such as YouTube to prevent videos featuring such incidents involving school-age children from being uploaded. Is my right hon. Friend able to update the House on the progress of discussions with internet service providers and mobile phone networks to tackle cyberbullying among schoolchildren? The parent who contacted me says:

“I believe that these videos should be appropriate and that YouTube should be doing more to ensure that footage showing inappropriate and violent content is not screened.”

He is right. The moderation provided by the industry is clearly inadequate and I ask my right hon. Friend to seek ways of strengthening its role.

My constituent firmly believes that internet sharing sites hide behind the fact that as it is their customers who upload the images, they are not responsible. To remove the footage of a violent assault in a school only after a complaint is received is not acceptable. It is too late. Action should be taken at the point of uploading—a key role for the moderators. It appears that some sites profit by encouraging customers to upload material, but when that material is offensive, they seek to pass the blame on to others.

I am aware that the Government have provided new guidance in how to prevent and tackle cyberbullying in their document “Safe to Learn: embedding anti-bullying work in schools”, which was released on 21 September 2007. That is welcome, and I know that the Government have worked hard with their taskforce to try to address the problem. What further work is the Department undertaking through the cyberbullying taskforce to ensure that schools and parents are provided with the information that they need to keep children safe online? Will the Minister also update us on her work with charities such as Bullying UK and ChildLine, which are at the forefront in helping young people with these issues?

I have mentioned the concerns of parents and pupils, so let me turn now to the concerns of professionals working in our schools. The National Union of Teachers has informed me that it sees the use of new technology as positive. Even a mobile phone can be useful. Many students store assignments, notes on lessons or their timetable on their phone. In these circumstances, the possession of a mobile phone can be an opportunity to improve their learning. However, if misused, it may become an instrument of bullying or harassment directed against pupils and teachers.

There is clear abuse in our schools. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers undertook a survey which revealed that 17 per cent. of respondents had experienced some type of cyberbullying. Those incidents ranged from receiving upsetting emails and unwelcome text messages to silent phone calls and malicious use of websites and internet chat rooms. Some teachers left the profession or retired as a result of these new phenomena. What shocks me is that some cases of cyberbullying have even been reported between teaching staff.

The results of the survey showed that 53 per cent. of respondents did not know whether their school had a code of conduct to address cyberbullying, and 39 per cent. said that their schools did not. Of those whose schools have a code of conduct to address the issue, 19 per cent. said it was not properly enforced and 72 per cent. could not say whether it was enforced. Will my right hon. Friend look into these issues, particularly the confusion among some in the profession about how to deal with them? I am conscious of the fact that there are many demands on teachers and that parents often have high expectations of them, but will she work closely with teaching representative organisations to spread awareness among teachers who experience these dilemmas?

Schools face several challenges when trying to eradicate these problems. Staff in some schools are not always up to date with new technology. They need clear guidance on cyberbullying, the methods used and their rights and responsibilities when dealing with these issues. They need examples of good practice and the support of local authorities and Government.

I am sure the Minister is already aware of many of the issues and I would welcome her comments. It is time for an outright ban on all mobile phones on school premises. Alternatively, could a ban on any mobile phones that are able to take and display photographs or video clips be the answer? Through new technology it is possible to install cell phone detectors, which could help to enforce non-use policies.

There is a need for greater understanding across Government Departments. When my constituent made the initial complaint to me, I took the issues up with the Home Office. I recognise that it is the Minister’s responsibility to take the issues forward with teachers and children, but it would be helpful if she could liaise with other Departments that have similar elements of responsibility.

The Minister will know that all commercially produced films and videos are subject to classification and regulation; user-generated violent videos or video clips are not. That fuels the perception among young people that they can film acts of violence or bullying and extend that abuse on to websites. They are encouraged in their actions by the failure of internet sharing websites to take positive action and prevent such material from being posted.

The Home Office has informed me that it is not possible to prevent such videos from being uploaded; it claims that the sheer volume of them prevents screening or classification and that pre-screening could prevent the reporting of new events and the uploading of slapstick comedy films. It argues that it would be difficult to distinguish between slapstick and deliberate happy-slapping incidents. However, if we are to change the perceptions of those who participate in happy-slapping acts, perceptions across Government must also change. I am confident that the Minister will agree to take the lead in changing those perceptions.

The Internet Watch Foundation is the only authorised UK organisation operating an internet hotline for the public to report their exposure to potentially illegal content online. Will the Minister make contact with the IWF and work with it on cyberbullying issues? It could develop a method whereby parents, teachers and pupils could report acts of violence among pupils online. The Home Office believes that such issues are outside its remit, but I believe that it has the knowledge and experience to help to eradicate such problems. Will the Minister work more closely with Home Office Ministers to ensure that young people have enough information to understand the implications of a happy-slapping incident? Such people could be committing a criminal act—more to the point, they are abusing fellow pupils. Interestingly, France has made happy-slapping a criminal offence. I do not wish to demonise young people or suggest that they should be criminalised for cyberbullying, but it is clearly a subject for debate across Europe and not only in Britain.

I am very aware that the Government are committed to tackling all forms of bullying in schools.

Has my hon. Friend considered liaising with the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, who has been in post for a number of years, to pursue her aims? Will the Minister also consider that?

That would be an excellent way forward, as I am sure the Minister will agree.

The guidance clearly states that bullying should never be tolerated and should always be dealt with seriously. Following the original complaint, I have become aware of an ongoing perception that it is acceptable for children to continue to film acts of violence and post them online without facing any consequences at all. Furthermore, internet websites and social network sites are failing to take responsibility for their content or for removing offensive and/or upsetting material as soon as possible. Only if we tackle that perception among young people, work with internet service providers who allow such material and support teachers in their work will we neutralise this new form of bullying and ensure the safety of the children in our schools.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, East (Mrs. James) on securing this debate and raising this important and distressing issue; I also thank my other hon. Friends, who share her concerns, for being here tonight.

Technology opens up a world of opportunities for pupils, but it also presents hazards. Cyberbullying is one of the nastiest consequences of technological development. Estimates suggest that between 11 and 34 per cent. of children have been affected. It is a particularly insidious form of bullying. Because new technology is available 24/7, bullying can continue 24/7 without respite or refuge, invisible to all but the victim and the perpetrator. The abuse—for that is what bullying is—can be compounded in this form many times over by posting it in cyberspace for all to see or by passing images to whole swathes of people at the flick of phone key. Because cyberbullying can transcend institutional boundaries, we need a broad response to conquer it, so schools, businesses, parents and young people themselves all have key roles to play. Our job in Government is to enable, to support and, in particular, to drive what must be a multifaceted response so that it has the impact that my hon. Friend and I want to see.

There is much more work to do, as my hon. Friend said, but in the past 12 months significant progress has been made. I am happy to answer her request for an update on our work, and I will respond to her specific questions as I go. As she said, schools have our anti-bullying guidance, “Safe to Learn”, which contains a specific cyberbullying section developed by Childnet International. That gives teachers all the information that they need to get to grips with cyberbullying—how to identify it, how to prevent it, and how to respond before things escalate. Above all, it meets teachers’ demands for more information and advice on the issue to ensure that they can be as savvy as their pupils and that schools have effective strategies for dealing with cyberbullying.

The guidance currently applies to English schools, but I understand that it is being considered by the Welsh Assembly for use in Wales too. Alongside that, English schools have been given additional powers and resources to tackle bullying, including cyberbullying. We have given them statutory powers to confiscate mobile phones used maliciously in and around school grounds; we have recently launched peer mentoring schemes whereby older pupils can help teachers to tackle bullying; and we are expanding the social and emotional aspects of learning programme to secondary schools following its great success in primary schools.

Cyberbullying is a new phenomenon, and understandably there are still issues to do with awareness and training to deal with it. We are continuing to work with the teaching unions and the Training and Development Agency for Schools, but “Safe to Learn” is an important start. As my hon. Friend rightly said, now that we have given schools this guidance and those powers, we need to help them to use those tools consistently. I am pleased that the school that she mentioned appears to have responded in absolutely the right way. We need all schools to apply the best practice contained in “Safe to Learn”. That means—I say this unequivocally—taking a hard line on cyberbullying. In cases where an assault has occurred—that is what happy-slapping is; it is already a criminal offence—schools should involve the police, as that school did. Equally, we will back heads to take the strongest action against pupils who use new technology to harass their teachers, because that has absolutely no place in our classrooms.

Young people themselves are another important focus. The explosion in social networking sites in recent years means that it is vital to teach children how to use the net safely and responsibly. We have responded to that need with an e-safety module as part of the key stage 3 information, communication and technology curriculum. The “Safe to Learn” guidance provides further advice on how schools can teach pupils to stay safe online and what to do if they are cyber-bullied. Last year, Childnet International developed a short film bringing to life how cyberbullying starts, what its impact can be on the victim, and how schools, parents and pupils can take active steps to prevent it. The film has been circulated to all schools as a teaching aid.

We are also reaching out to parents. Parentline Plus has produced a leaflet for parents on how to protect children from cyberbullying. That leaflet offers measured and practical advice showing parents how to keep their children safe without denying them the positives that technology can bring—it is important to strike that balance. Because most surveys have shown that there are big differences between what parents think that their children are doing online and what children actually say they are doing, it is crucial that parents keep a close eye on what their children do. Right from the beginning, they should be aware of the potentially negative uses of technology. They should instil the right values in their children and the expectation that cyber-bulling is just not acceptable.

At heart, we have to address the culture that allows cyberbullying to flourish. Through personal, health and social education lessons and the social and emotional aspects of learning programme that I mentioned, schools must teach children about the need for respect and tolerance. But we are also taking a more direct route. Last year, we ran a vigorous online campaign on popular sites like Bebo, Yahoo and MySpace. It was called “Laugh at it and you're part of it”, and it aimed to challenge those young people passively involved in cyberbullying—perhaps by observing and filming something that is going on—by showing that sending on a malicious e-mail meant that they were taking part in the bullying, too. It meant that they were part of it.

Evaluation showed that the campaign reached nearly 170,000 young people in its six-week run. More impressively, 84 per cent. of respondents to the survey we conducted after the campaign said that they would now help in a situation where someone was being cyberbullied. The audience were also more aware of the severity of cyberbullying after the campaign: 71 per cent. had seen it as a serious problem beforehand, and that rose to 90 per cent. after the campaign. That is real evidence that we have started to get the message across and that we have started to spark a cultural shift among young people.

I know that some have argued—my hon. Friend touched on this—that technology providers are complicit in cyberbullying, and I have mixed views on that point. Certainly, online channels, by their very existence, provide the oxygen for cyberbullying to survive. Without a medium to broadcast content, the appeal of cyberbullying would probably shrivel, and I agree with my hon. Friend that we need business to raise its game. However, I do not think that the suggestions of a blanket ban on mobile phones, blocks on websites or tweaks to video phones are a feasible way forward. Some schools may choose to ban mobiles—they have that power—but I am not convinced that a wholesale ban would necessarily prevent cyberbullying. It would not necessarily have any effect beyond the school gates.

I understand my hon. Friend’s question as to whether pre-vetting can prevent the broadcasting of content. That makes absolute sense. The problem, however, is the extent to which it is a realistic idea in the context of the extent to which young people are using such sites. Users of YouTube, for instance, upload on average six hours of video every minute. We estimate that it would require 360 people working 24 hours a day to keep tabs on every video. That reveals the scale of the difficulty of monitoring content before it gets posted.

We need collaboration, creativity and consensus in order to keep pace with the threat. In that spirit, we have developed the cyberbullying taskforce that my hon. Friend mentioned. It is a forum for internet service providers—they are part of the taskforce—mobile phone companies, teaching unions, charities and law enforcement agencies to work together to find the creative means to stop cyberbullying. The taskforce has played an important role in the initiatives I have already spoken about, and it continues to be important for building consensus on the way forward. Through the taskforce, we will continue to push for more effective solutions to speed up the removal of malicious content, as far as we can, to refine safety precautions and to tighten up terms of use across the industry.

We need to acknowledge what has already been achieved. For example, YouTube has worked with beatbullying to develop an anti-bullying channel; MySpace is working with the Department to develop an anti-bullying webpage, and Vodafone and O2 have contributed to the cost of cyberbullying resources for schools. There is clear evidence that that collaborative approach is paying dividends, and I am sure that there is more to come.

Alongside the cyberbullying taskforce, we have commissioned Dr. Tanya Byron to conduct a wholesale review of the risks that new technology may pose to young people. It will inform a broader strategy, including that on cyberbullying. Dr. Byron is considering the way in which institutions can work together more effectively on child protection issues, which, as my hon. Friend rightly points out, is vital. There is significant join-up across Government—I understand her call for that. For example, Home Office representatives sit on the cyberbullying taskforce. A colleague in my Department regularly discusses such matters with his counterpart in the Home Office. However, we clearly need to make things more seamless at all levels. I think that Dr. Byron’s recommendations will be helpful and I look forward to hearing them.

We all know that behaviour evolves as society evolves, and that new opportunities also present new hazards. In the 1970s and 1980s, racially motivated bullying was the scourge of our schools. It required a concerted response—by teachers, media, the Government and society at large—to make a significant impression. Cyberbullying is in danger of becoming the scourge of 21st century schools. However, I believe that we can make the same inroads against that form of bullying as we did against racism in the 1990s. It will take a similarly broad response across Government, schools, businesses and the community to achieve success. Crucially, it involves mobilising young people, and especially their parents, in the fight against cyberbullying. Through “Safe to Learn”, the cyberbullying taskforce, increased powers for teachers and hard-hitting information campaigns, I believe that we have made an important start.

We have much more to do, but by continuing to work in partnership with providers, schools, charities and families, I am confident that we can claim technology as a force for good in our schools and our lives and not allow it to become a force for ill. My hon. Friend’s concern and pressure for action contribute to that. Again, I am grateful to her for bringing her concerns to our attention and enabling me to say that we share them, to outline what we are already doing to respond and what, with her help, we will continue to try to achieve.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Nine o’clock.