Cyberbullying – understand, respond and prevent

Cyberbullying – when the internet, telephones and other forms of digital technology are used by individuals to threaten, tease, upset or humiliate someone else.

This modern form of bullying has sadly become more prevalent. Whilst it is increasingly becoming a public concern more awareness is needed by society to help address and prevent it.

As with many changes in society, the internet and social media have changed the way bullying occurs. Digital technology enables multiple devices to be used to spread and repeat hurtful and intimidating behaviour. Technological platforms provide cyberbullies with the means to reach a vast audience making it harder to police and punish cyberbullies whose identities are mostly anonymous.

The UK has no legal definition of cyberbullying but it is possible to apply some existing laws to cases of cyberbullying and online harassment. These include the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the Communications Act 2003 and the Defamation Act 2013.

Ideally, cyber-specific laws should be introduced but policymakers face problems in creating the same including:

  • Cyberbullying is an international problem. Consequently, countries have to consider ways to combat this issue and a coordinated worldwide approach is needed to tackle it. Policing remains a real issue, currently victims are not protected if their cyberbully is outside the UK.
  • What is the role social media outlets have to play, should they do more or be criminally responsible themselves? Where does freedom of speech sit in this arena?
  • How should cyberbullying/cyber stalking be defined? As a growing modern problem is it possible to define such terms without running the risk of not keeping up with the rapidly evolving digital age?

Despite the difficulties society, especially educators, need to be aware of the problem and undertake steps to try and prevent cyberbullying. Some of the strategies recommended are:

  • Inform children about the way information online can be used and shared globally.
  • Explain and identify the risks of sharing information online.
  • Inform children about the impact of spending too much time online.
  • Use parental controls and set up children’s devices to maintain a degree of control especially in relation to privacy settings.
  • Be aware of “Masquerading” – the use of a fake identity to bully or harass individuals anonymously. Recently there have been reports of increased use of celebrity identities to exploit children and groom them.

Cyberbullying is also a problem within the workplace. Research suggests 1 in 5 employees have experienced a form of cyberbullying resulting in stress and illness. Employers owe their employees a legal duty of care to provide a safe working environment. If a company’s technology is used as a platform for cyberbullying employers potentially face breaching their own duty of care.

If a child or an employee reports cyberbullying it is important to:

  • Provide support to the victim.
  • Record the incident and investigate if necessary.
  • If no criminal acts are involved undertake steps to ensure the offensive material is removed to prevent further upset. If a criminal offence may have been or has been committed report it to the police.
  • Try to contain the incidente. stop the content that has been used from spreading. If the person who posted the content is known get them to remove the material; if they are not known contact the service provider and submit a report to get the content taken down.
  • Inform others and raise awareness.

The internet and social media allow society to share and learn in a positive manner. However, all must be alert to misuse. Prevention via greater knowledge is essential but society and the law must accept not all cyberbullying will be prevented and so when it does happen there must be clear responses and action to bring it to an end.


Written by Miriam Rahamim, solicitor at BLM

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