Sophie made me laugh last week because she asked me how old I was when I was allowed a Facebook account. Our children today just cannot comprehend a life without social media, but it is not a world that even the most digital savvy of parents have had to deal with when growing up. Unfortunately cyberbullying is a very real threat and the multitude of platforms make it difficult to police. The explosion of participation and content generation on social media sites like Facebook, twitter, Tumblr and YouTube has led to an infinite amount of opportunities, with few rules and a total absence of control.
When Sophie asked if she could have a Facebook account, I pondered long and hard. My intial reaction was "you're only 11, you're not even allowed one until you're 14, use mine instead" so she'd chat to various family members and the friends who had accounts using my profile. But I soon got fed up of her friends friending me and clogging up my timeline with messages for her so I relented.
Within a matter of months, she was getting bitchy comments. She'd post a photo and get "you're ugly" comments from people who are not great friends but friendly enough with her at school. I showed her how to block people and told her to ignore them but I know comments like that hurt - especially when they come out of the blue from supposed "friends".
Then the bitchiness went a lot further. One of the reasons I got fed up of her friends using my account was that they sent endless "hi, what are you up to?" instant messages every time I logged on. If I had time, I'd write a few replies but most of the time I didn't and it was a bit annoying. I wasn't aware that Sophie had started doing the same thing until one of her "friends" posted a screenshot of Sophie's private messages with the message "Are you stupid Sophie? If I don't reply, it's because I don't want to talk to you. Stop harrassing me". This degenerated into "Sophie's got no friends", "hahaha let's beat her up on Monday at school" messages splashed all across the timeline. I gave Sophie a quick refresher course in netiquette and told her that it IS annoying to keep getting messages popping up when it's not a 2-way conversation, told her to apologise on the message thread, took screenshots in case anything DID kick off at school and crossed fingers that it would all die a death over the weekend. I went through with her and blocked all the people from her account who had made bitchy or nasty comments. Luckily that was the end of it but I was shocked at how nasty it had got and how it had snowballed with more and more people (friends of friends, literally) getting involved, adding more fuel (and bitchiness) to the fire.
Then - quite ironically - the girl who had started the whole "I don't want to talk to you" thread started getting on to Sophie at school about "why did you block me on Facebook?" and wouldn't let it drop. It all came to a head when I got a panicked phonecall from Sophie on the way home from school to say a gang of about 5 or 6 of them (plus various hangers-on) wouldn't let her pass and were threatening her, again asking why she'd blocked the girl on Facebook. I went to pick her up, had it out with the girl on the spot, told her I was the one to block her on facebook, that judging by the comments she'd left on Sophie's wall she didn't want to talk to Sophie anyway and pointed out that I had screenshots of her messages so if she didn't lay off immediately, I'd be in touch with the school and her parents. That seemed to do the trick luckily !
It really is a minefield though and I know I have as steep a learning curve as Sophie in all things cyber-bullying. It seems really important to me that tween/teen-friendly media start addressing the issue and offering advice and support so I'm pleased to see that that is exactly what Hollyoaks has done. They have featured a storyline about bullying and created a fictional microblogging website called Doc.you, originally as a 6th form project within the show, but now also online at http://docyou.e4.com/. The site delivers updates by sixth form characters 24 hours a day in unflinching detail, just as in real life, and cyberbullying is a central theme. Off the back of this project, E4 and Channel 4 Education are hoping to create an online resource in a groundbreaking initiative, that will provide a wealth of information and support, addressing the impact of social media on our lives.
Hopefully, this isn't an issue that you'll have to deal with personally but it is definitely something that all parents of tweens and teens should approach with their kids so that they're equipped to deal with the situation, should it arise.
for more information, help and support : http://www.e4.com/hollyoaks/docyou/support.html
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