Charge of the byte brigade
The word 'cyberbully' entered the Oxford English Dictionary in August, although it has been in use for several years to describe someone who poses what has become the most common online risk for teenagers, sometimes with tragic consequences.
While some adults don't differentiate this type of behaviour from traditional schoolyard bullying, others see the often anonymous form of abuse as an epidemic. In the US, it has led to a rash of teen suicides.
One notable case came to light in September, when a 14-year-old boy committed suicide after being bullied mercilessly online. His story prompted teen idol Lady Gaga to demand tighter anti-bullying laws in the US. Twenty-one American states have already passed anti-bullying laws in response to bad behaviour online, and President Barack Obama's administration recently issued tough guidelines to schools on the civil rights of victims.
In Australia, an anti-bullying programme called eSmart is being rolled out in all schools, and in Britain, state schools have anti-bullying policy requirements, and independent schools are similarly obligated.
Annis Fung Lai-chu, assistant professor in the department of applied social services at City University, believes adolescents in Hong Kong face a serious threat from cyberbullying because of widespread access to wireless technology and gadgets, and has been studying the phenomenon for the past six months. In interviews with more than 1,800 local students averaging 13 years of age, about 32 per cent admitted they had engaged in all forms of cyberbullying, 47 per cent admitted to harassing peers with insults and bad language, and another 50 per cent had participated in joking, teasing and name-calling. Although Fung's research will not be published until next November, early evidence suggests that cyberbullying is pervasive among youngsters citywide.
No fatalities have been reported as a result of cyberbullying in Hong Kong, and the Education Bureau does not collect data on such behaviour from schools. But schools are making a commitment to cyber-safety education, support and mentoring programmes.
The bureau's principal inspector for guidance and discipline, Brian Lee Shiu-fung, says that although cyberbullying is hard to define, the bureau 'recognises the trend and risks of students being exposed to cyberbullying in view of the fast development of digital technology'.
In an effort to send a clear message to schools, the bureau has adopted a 'zero tolerance' policy on bullying in all forms, including cyberbullying. 'Schools should ensure students' safety and create a harmonious school environment by nurturing students' mutual respect and acceptance,' Lee says.
As a further precaution, about 70 primary and secondary schools are launching an anti-bullying campaign and are participating in activities during Anti-bullying Day this month and Anti-bullying Week scheduled for January.
The bureau will provide the schools with promotional materials such as posters, guidelines, lesson plans and e-posters for conducting school-wide and classroom-level activities. 'The bureau will continue to pay heed to the potential problem in misuse or abuse of digital technology, and to support schools and teachers in preventing and handling cyberbullying,' Lee says.
'We will also continue to work closely with relevant government departments and NGOs to promote cyber-safety.'
To hold students accountable for their behaviour, most networked schools issue acceptable use policies, which constitute a kind of cybersafety compliance form. At Hong Kong International School every student from Year Five upwards has a laptop as required by the school's one-to-one programme. Jon Walsh, the school's communications manager, says 'good digital citizenship' is the key to success.
'When students are issued their laptops, parents and students sign an acceptable use policy that includes agreement not to use technology in destructive ways,' he says.
At the English Schools Foundation's secondary schools, those who break the official policy automatically lose the freedom to use the internet at school. It happened in 2009 when one student introduced a popularity ranking application to his peers. 'The kids were ranking students by popularity, which evolved into a larger movement with kids ranking teachers by popularity. The student was caught,' recalls Annette Chapman, vice-principal of South Island School.
She remembers the incident because something astounding happened afterwards. 'A group of students affected by the rankings, along with other student leaders, developed an in-school organisation called Obsessed to deal with cyberbullying issues and other cyber-safety activities.'
Nathan Cheung Siu-fung, a Year 12 student and the founding member of the group, explains how the name was chosen. 'We named the group Obsessed because we felt that in the 21st century, so many people are becoming addicted to building their digital identities that they lose touch with reality. They become obsessed.'
For the past two years, Obsessed has coached younger secondary students, offered workshops and held school assemblies aimed at eradicating cyberbullying. Obsessed also serves as a counselling service to which students can report cases and receive assistance.
Kamy Yeung Mei-chui, the social worker assigned to South Island School from Hong Kong Children & Youth Services, says: 'Schools are afraid. Students have easy access to the internet, and it has become a big responsibility to educate the students about prevention.'
Obsessed helps the school community in ways that are reflective of Hong Kong culture. 'Kids are afraid to tell their parents for two reasons. First, they are afraid their parents might overreact. Second, they are afraid that their parents may accuse them of overreacting,' Yeung says.
Nathan Cheung says cyberbullying is just as harmful as the physical kind. 'People think that physical bullying is worse, but bruises disappear,' he says. 'On the internet, the hurt doesn't fade. Cyberbullying causes permanent damage. It follows you home.'
Louis Leung Wing-chi, professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Chinese University, and Paul Lee Siu-nam, dean of social science and professor in the journalism school, recently conducted a study to examine what factors can predict internet risks. They did face-to-face interviews with more than 700 local youngsters aged nine to 19. The researchers concluded that if internet addiction could be prevented, the risks would decrease. According to Leung: 'Internet addiction symptoms, such as losing track of time spent online, are key indicators, especially for adolescents being the target of harassment.'
The study also suggests that the fewer social networking sites visited, 'the less likely adolescents would be to encounter risks on the internet.' Parenting styles matter, too. 'The stricter the parenting style, the lower the likelihood adolescents will be addicted to the internet.'
Sean Moran, information technology manager at South Island School, says better parenting would help resolve the problem. 'Parents blame laptops and Facebook or any form of technology for the problem. But bullying is bullying. Cyber doesn't really change that.'
Moran says parents need to be more engaged in their children's social lives by offering guidance and setting boundaries. 'Online harassment occurs in the home. It's not just a school issue, and a lot of the bad stuff occurs from the privacy of a child's bedroom,' he says.
Moran adds that parental vigilance - such as knocking on a child's bedroom door and checking in - would make a huge difference.
Internet usage and parenting styles are not the only predictive factors for internet risks such as cyberbullying; characteristics of perpetrators are important, as well. Many adolescents have a strong preference for the online world versus the real world because they lack social skills and feel more comfortable dealing with computers than with people.
'Aggressive victims use the internet for revenge,' Moran says. 'These are the students who have been teased or taunted for years, and have low self-esteem. They will participate in cyberbullying because they feel safe enough to retaliate.'
Hiding behind false identities or acting anonymously, the aggressive victims wreak more havoc than even real face-to-face bullies. That's because they believe they will not be caught.
It's the anonymous attacks that can be the most damaging. Jaime Ng, a member of South Island School's student-led anti-cyberbullying organisation, who has been a victim himself, says: 'They're the most prevalent, and often they become viral. They are powerful because you don't know who did it.'
Nathan Cheung agrees, adding: 'It's the power of attacking behind the screen that seduces physically weaker individuals into becoming active.'
The South Island School student group Obsessed adopted these guidelines for internet use:
Never talk to people you don't know
Never share personal information with others
Limit your time on the internet to three hours; turn off your computer at least one hour before bed
Spend time on the internet wisely and happily
The golden rule: think before you post anything
Hong Kong Internet Education Campaign: www.ieducation.hk/ps.php
Net-wise Campaign: www.be-netwise.hk (in Chinese only)