The issue of cyberbullying in the UK is approaching the scale of a national crisis. A 2017 study by the Guardian shows that almost half of girls in the UK are harassed online. Victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to engage in self-harming behaviours, including suicide attempts.
It is not only the victims who are at risk. With cyberbullying behaviour linked to in-person bullying and other forms of relational aggression, mental health problems and even criminal behaviour in later life, it is essential that teachers take steps to help both victims of cyberbullying and the bullies themselves.
Cyberbullying laws UK
There are no UK laws that specifically target cyberbullying, however, the behaviour of a cyberbully often breaches a myriad of other laws. These include:
- The Protection from Harassment Act 1997
- The Malicious Communications Act 1988
- The Communications Act 2003
- The Obscene Publications Act 1959
- The Public Order Act 1986
- The Computer Misuse Act 1990
Many of the behaviours that constitute cyberbullying are serious crimes and the perpetrators will be dealt with accordingly.
The penalties for committing a crime under most of these acts range from:
- Imprisonment for up to five years
- A fine of £5,000
- A restraining order
What are the effects of cyberbullying on young people?
It is vital that teachers identify and prevent cyberbullying wherever it occurs in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of their pupils.
However, due to the anonymity of the web and the fact that the behaviour often occurs outside school hours it can be extremely difficult to know if cyberbullying is taking place. Teachers are therefore advised to monitor pupils’ classroom behaviour for signs.
In young people, the following may indicate that they are the victim of a cyberbully:
- Low self-esteem
- Changes in mood, including depression, anger or shyness
- Changes in personality, including misbehaving in class
- Changes in appearance, including losing weight or dressing differently
- Social withdrawal, both from family and friends
- Signs of self-harm
- Protectiveness over their phone/laptop
- Suffering performance at school
- School refusal or truancy
How to deal with cyberbullying
If one of your pupils comes to you because they have become the victim of a cyberbully, there are several steps that you can take:
- Instruct the pupil not to respond – although this can be extremely difficult if the bully is using offensive language and/or spreading lies, ultimately they are looking for a reaction. Replying to a cyberbully only encourages them and this will escalate the situation for the victim
- Document evidence of the cyberbullying – often pupils do not report cyberbullying because they are ashamed at the idea of showing adults the demeaning messages that the cyberbully has sent them. Explain sensitively to the pupil that these messages are evidence and that it is important to record them. Show this evidence to the school counsellor, the headteacher and (if necessary) the police
- Encourage the pupil to seek support – counselling can be an excellent way to help victims of cyberbullying stay as mentally healthy as possible while the situation is resolved and to regain their confidence afterwards
- Contact the police if necessary – if the cyberbully is threatening the victim in any way – be it physical or emotional – this is a matter for the police. Encouraging the victim to commit suicide is a threat. Also contact police if the insults are motivated by race, religion or ableism
Remember that the personal relationship between you and the pupil being targeted is hugely important. Provide them with support and ensure that they see you as a supportive and non-judgemental figure.