With the recent suicide of teenager Hannah Smith, cyber bullying is hitting headlines across Britain and Ireland once again. Smith killed herself after receiving several abusive messages from users on website Ask.fm. Others to have reportedly fallen victim to cyber bullying include 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley, sisters Erin (13) and Shannon (15) Gallagher. New questions have been raised about how best to combat bullying in these situations, especially since it can be difficult tracking the bullies as well as helping the victim.
A recent Oireachtas report on social media sites concluded that they are having a negative effect on children in Ireland. To deal with the problem, several remedies have been put forward; school and employer guidelines are recommended to be updated so as to reflect the rise of cyber bullying in society, while mobile phones should also be strictly controlled to prevent bullying. A statement from St Patrick’s Hospital was included in the report which summed up the thrust of the document; it states that ”Social media is having a negative effect on Irish child and adolescent mental health services in terms of cyber-bullying, exposure to unsuitable violent and sexual material, as well as excessive use of social media websites instead of actual social interaction”.
However, the link between cyber bullying and suicide is considered tenuous and both matters should be dealt with separately according to a separate report by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communication. It felt that while its members are ”aware of cases where victims of cyberbullying have taken their own lives, it is worth noting North American research which found that cyberbullying is rarely the sole or main cause of death by suicide”. It concludes by stating that there is already sufficient legislation in place to deal with cyber bullying.
The report had recommendations for dealing with the bullying of children and young teens, where it felt that ”these matters are best dealt with outside the courts system unless they involve cases which are persistent or unresponsive to other forms of intervention…Some cases may be best dealt with within schools, as is increasingly done in the USA where cyberbullying (even if it occurs outside school time) is seen as disruptive to the learning environment.”
The legality of cyber bullying is still up for debate it appears; the aforementioned report recommends that cyber bullying falls within the legal definition of harassment, even though the original Oireachtas report felt differently about the matter. This is in high contrast to a report by the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Geoffrey Shannon, which noted that cyber bullying be made a criminal offence.
As for the case of Ask.fm and Hannah Smith, firms including Vodaphone, Specsavers and Laura Ashley have all pulled their advertising from the site. While the site’s founders have spoken of how they don’t condone bullying, Smith’s father believes they should be charged with manslaughter. In the middle of this furore, Ask.fm has reached 70 million users, showing that young peoples’ desire to interact with others on the internet isn’t going to slow down any time soon.