As digital platforms become part of the fabric of life, charities have a responsibility to be the guardians of children and vulnerable adults online.
The anonymous, non-physical nature of the online world is a double-edged sword. Online platforms such as social media, messaging apps and forums can be incredibly enriching to peoples’ lives, giving people the freedom to express themselves in countless new ways, stay connected to their communities and loved ones, get to know worthwhile causes, find and learn from people that share their interests and similarities, however niche, and even find friendship and love. We can’t underestimate the value of these interactions for the housebound and disabled, and for families and friends separated by distance. And a whole generation of younger people barely distinguish between the ’digital world’ and everything else - for them, digital has simply always been enmeshed in their lives. But as with any technology we create, there is a dark side. Online platforms give people the freedom to express themselves without inhibition, and inevitably this can sometimes mean attacking or criticising others without any of the consequences they might face in the real world. It is simply very easy to be a cyber bully. One in five 13-18 year olds report they have experenced cyber bullying, and this type of behaviour is only increasing as digital connectivity continues to grow - 95% of households in the UK now own a smartphone. 34% of people overall now say they’ve experienced some form of cyber bullying - double that of 2007, when smartphone ownership was at just 78%. Added to this, the pressure to always present our ’best selves’ online, and the readiness to criticise anything less than perfect, can impact self-esteem considerably. Platforms such as Instagram focus heavily on physical appearance and maintaining the illusion of an ideal, glamorous life. Instagram itself has taken steps to counteract the potentially harmful effects of its platform, bringing in new features such as the ’restrict’ function which allows people to stop comments on their posts from being viewed, and to become invisible to their bully. But that is just one small measure. These platforms have grown faster than any of us could have predicated or accounted for, and their psychological consequences are only just beginning to come to light - a recent poll found that Instagram was found to be the worst for mental health, further fuelling feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. Snapchat, which is also heavily image-based, comes in second.
Cyber bullying can take many forms, and in the constantly changing world of digital it’s vital to remain vigilant - flaming, trolling and doxing might sound like jargon but they’re very real ways that tormenters can make victims’ lives hell. When bullying happens online, it is all the more permanent - online content can stay online forever as a constant reminder of the victims’ humiliation. It can also happen at any time of the day or night because the internet has no shut off point, and can be a continuation of bullying taking place in the physical world. Online bullying makes it twice as likely for a young person to self-harm or attempt suicide, as the high number of suicide cases involving cyber bullying would attest to. One extremely concerning study by online safety organisation Internet Matters found that around two million vulnerable children, including those with disabilities and mental health issues, are at particular risk online.
The study also found that children in care and young carers are almost twice as likely to be cyberbullied than their peers. And it’s not just children - vulnerable adults such as those with disabilities and mental health issues are particularly at risk. These are the service users that charities are here to protect and support. The Internet Matters report claims that a generation of children are growing up in the wild west of the online world - a world which adults may not be privy to or understand, and so cannot support them in. But that’s not really an excuse. The sad fact is that just because they may not understand online bullying or be aware of it, it doesn’t mean it’s not happening and isn’t very real to those affected. That is why it’s essential for charities with vulnerable service users to take the issue seriously. Arguably, charities have a responsibility to make sure they’re supporting their service users online just as much as in the physical world.
It may be extremely difficult to prevent people accessing harmful content online, or spiteful people from bullying, but there are ways to be proactive and alert. The more presence that charities can have on these platforms, the more visibility they will have into the issues that affect their service users’ day to day lives. Not only that, but charities should be actively involved in online communities, looking out for those with mental health issues or who might be struggling and descreetly signposting those who need support. Charities like the NSPCC provide great resources for schools, parents and youth workers around how to recognise the signs and respond in an offline capacity to cyber bullying in much that same way that they should in the real world. The charity also has a ’Keeping children safe online’ course that can be taken by anyone that works with children and young people. Any youth-based professional certification worth its salt, such as this free CPD course from the Anti-Bullying Alliance, should include at least a module on cyber bullying. Charities like Internet Matters are also leading the charge by ensuring that they’re partnering with the tech platforms that young people use to spread advice and encourage a safer environment. By educating themselves on the problems vulnerable people face in the digital world, charities can take a more active involvement in working alongside tech companies to ensure their platforms are genuinely promoting safety and wellbeing, not just paying lip service. Just as charities need to be embracing the positive aspects of digital, they cannot ignore it as a potential avenue for abuse.