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Cyber bullying

What is 'Cyberbullying'?
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Cyberbullying, or online bullying, can be defined as the use of technologies by an individual, or by a group of people, to deliberately and repeatedly upset someone else. Cyberbullying is a method of bullying and should be viewed and treated the same as "real world" bullying and can happen to any member of the school community. Educational setting staff, parents and young people have to be constantly vigilant and work together to prevent and tackle bullying wherever it appears.

Further information about the role schools and settings have to play in preventing and tackling bullying can be found in the Kent County Council anti-bullying policy template (DOCX, 138.7 KB) (September 2018).

Kent educational settings are encouraged to access and use the Cyberbullying Guidance provided by Childnet and DfE 'Preventing and Tackling Bullying' (July 2017) guidance which explores how settings should understand, prevent and respond to online bullying concerns.

How is cyberbullying different to 'normal' bullying?
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Cyberbullying is a method of bullying that is concerned with the use of ICT to upset, threaten or humiliate someone and should be treated as seriously as other forms of bullying. Cyberbullying rarely occurs in isolation and tends to include physical and emotional bullying offline.

What can sometimes make cyberbullying feel harder to manage can be the following:

  • Cyberbullying can take place 24/7, creating a feeling of "no escape" for the victim, and is not restricted by location
  • Electronic content is very hard to control once it has been posted and can never be guaranteed to be removed totally from circulation; this can be very upsetting to victims as they can never be sure who has viewed images or content about them.
  • Bullies can attempt to be anonymous and can feel "distanced" from the incident. They are often unaware of the laws regarding harassment and the fact online activity can be traced via "digital footprints."
  • "Bystanders" can easily become perpetrators by passing on videos, image or content, or by videoing incidents such as "happy slapping"'
  • Cyberbullying can occur unintentionally, often due to a lack of awareness and empathy, or by thinking "It was only a joke."
  • Cyberbullying enables harassment and upset to take place across generations; age and size is not an issue due to technology removing the power and size issues that could otherwise prevent bullying from occurring.
  • Cyberbullying can sometimes even be perpetrated by the victim themselves (known as cyber/digital self-harm).
  • One key positive with online bullying is that incidents can be used as evidence - e.g. text messages, messenger conversations, screenshots. It is important that this evidence is kept, not deleted and the victim does not retaliate.

What does the law say for education settings?
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There are a number of statutory obligations on educational settings with regard to behaviours which establish clear responsibilities to respond to cyberbullying.

  • Section 89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 states that every school must have measures to encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying amongst pupils. These measures should be part of the school's behaviour policy which must be communicated to all pupils, school staff and parents;
  • Headteachers have a specific statutory power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour outside of the school premises. Section 89(5) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives Headteachers the power to regulate pupils' conduct when they are not on school premises and are not under the lawful control or charge of a member of school staff (does not apply to independent schools). This can relate to any bullying incidents occurring anywhere off the school premises (including online). Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted on.
  • Under the Children Act 1989 a bullying incident should be addressed as a child protection concern when there is 'reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm'. Where this is the case, the school staff should report their concerns to the Education Safeguarding Service.
    • Even where safeguarding is not considered to be an issue, schools may need to draw on a range of external services to support the pupil who is experiencing bullying, or to tackle any underlying issue which has contributed to a child doing the bullying.

Although bullying in itself is not a specific criminal offence in the UK, it is important to bear in mind that some types of harassing or threatening behaviour or communications could be a criminal offence, for example under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Communications Act 2003, and the Public Order Act 1986

If staff feel that an offence may have been committed they should seek assistance from the police via 101. If it is an emergency (if someone is injured, in danger or there is a risk to someone's life) then contact 999.

In July 2017 the Department for Education updated their guidance regarding prevent and tackle bullying. The content includes advice and information for Headteachers and staff about how they can support pupils but also how they can protect themselves and respond to online bullying directed at staff. There is also information for parents and carers regarding how they can support their child if they are affected by online bullying.

Additional guidance is also available for educational settings to help them when dealing with complaints or issues raised by parents/carers on social networking sites

For more information on how educational settings should respond to online bullying and for useful links please visit the Dealing with cyberbullying page.

What is "Trolling" and is it the same as cyberbullying?
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"Trolling" is not quite the same as cyberbullying. Trolling is when someone deliberately posts inflammatory, offensive, or off-topic messages, images or comments online with the main intent of provoking an emotional response or disrupting normal on-topic discussion. People who take part in 'trolling' are referred to as 'trolls'. "Trolls" often argue that their behaviour is a "joke" and is about creating mischief or demonstrating freedom of speech; but for many, the viciousness and often personal nature of the comments verges on hate speech, threats and bullying, and can cause considerable distress.

Trolling can also have criminal consequences under the Malicious Communications Act which makes it an offence to send electronic communications that are indecent or highly offensive, contain threats or false information. If the reason for the communication is to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or any other person, the sender is guilty of an offence whether those targeted actually receive the message or not.

What is "Digital Self-Harm"?
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A less commonly known topic is the issue of 'digital' or 'cyber' self-harm. This phenomenon often presents initially as cyberbullying; but is where an individual posts unkind, hateful or offensive messages or content about themselves. Often anonymous services or fake accounts (or in some cases, another person's social media account) are used to send the messages. In some cases, children and young people may actively put themselves into negative situations online, for example inviting others to post unkind or hateful comments about them, sometimes referred to as “a roasting”. Self-harm is usually about acting in a way to 'release' emotional, psychological or physical pain; digital self-harm is believed to be a variation of this.

Digital self-harm is very a secretive behaviour; children and young people perpetrating digital self-harm require non-judgemental help and support from education settings, as well as peers and family members. If educational settings believe that children and young people are digitally self-harming, then they should respond in line with their existing child protection procedures.

Further information regarding digital self-harm can be found at the following links: