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Blog: "Sticks and stones...

..may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”.

We all know this old adage which dates from the mid-1800s. The rhyme was meant as a defence against name-calling and verbal bullying; a child being verbally bullied might chant it back at their aggressor. Its intention was to increase resiliency, avoid physical retaliation to remain calm and “good-living”. 

The earliest clear citation is from the Christian Recorder, March 1862:

Remember the old adage, ‘Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me’. True courage consists in doing what is right, despite the jeers and sneers of our companions.”

There is no record of its efficacy, but what we do know now is that bullying in all its forms can have long-lasting and damaging impact on the victim, sometimes fatally so. Psychology Today says “Bullying is not typical aggression; it is a deliberate, repeated attempt to cause harm to others of lesser power. Inevitably, in a world where when children as young as 10 have their own smartphone and easy access to social media, this bullying behaviour has migrated online where it is known as “cyberbullying”.

Cyberbullying is defined by the Anti-Bullying Alliance as “…the online repetitive, intentional hurting of one person or group by another person or group, where the relationship involves an imbalance of power that is carried out through the use of electronic media devices, such as computers, laptops, smartphones, tablets, or gaming consoles” and it differs from offline bullying in two major ways. One is that the perpetrators have 24 x 7 access to their victims, it is unrelenting, there is no escape. The other is that it can be carried out anonymously; it’s simply too easy to set up a fake profile and use that to attack someone.

The effects of cyberbullying have become so alarming that the UK Government is determined to create new regulations and powers to address it, along with other forms of online abuse. To pave the way for this, in 2019 it published what is known as the “Online Harms white paper” and later this year we are expecting to see some form of legislation on this issue, along with the appointment of Ofcom to the role of “internet regulator”.

To be effective, a regulator needs clarity in law and despite the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s definition of cyberbullying, and others similar to it from other organisations from around the world, there is no legal definition of this pernicious activity. Indeed the Government’s own Online Harms white paper simply referred to it as “a harm with a less clear definition”.

But what does “online repetitive, intentional hurting” mean? Does it mean the repeated sending of messages via a public communications network that are grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing? Because if it does, then that’s contravening Section 127 of the UK’s Communications Act 2003 and that is illegal. And if you’re a 10, 11, 12, 13 year old child on social media and receive grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages from persons known or unknown every time you look at your smartphone, at any time of day, hundreds of times a day, what impact will that have on you?

Although “cyberbullying” itself may not have a clear legal definition, the actions that cyberbullies carry out often are illegal and are very well defined.

Our cyberpsychology team has trained our software to identify these well-known and recognised behavioural patterns and to intervene should a child try to throw these digital sticks and stones. It is designed to protect children from the worst of sexting, bullying, abuse and aggression which can be so damaging to their development. Our Digital Wellbeing Assistant will help them when they are feeling down, or if they are struggling with low self-esteem issues. It provides reassuring and soothing advice and support at the time when your child needs it the most.

Download the SafeToNet safeguarding and wellbeing app from the Appstore of your choice today.

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