Bullying campaigner admits cyberbullying 'not as prevalent' as offline bullying

May 16, 2019

A member of Prince William's Cyberbullying Taskforce has warned that the treatment of cyberbullying by politicians and the media is unbalanced because online bullying is less significant than its face-to-face equivalent.

Alex Holmes is deputy CEO of anti-bullying charity The Diana Award and one of the UK's leading anti-bullying campaigners.

Although cyberbullying could be extremely hurtful, Mr Holmes told Sky News that the young people he encountered did not see it as their biggest obstacle.

"They are telling us that bullying that's happening offline is a bigger problem than what's happening online," he said. "I think that shouldn't be forgotten."

Mr Holmes warned that concentrating too much on cyberbullying risked ignoring the far larger issue of bullying in schools.

"It's very easy to paint the internet as this really scary place and I think sometimes we forget that school for a lot of young people is just as scary. That by now is something that we should have a lot more control on."

Mr Holmes has been part of Prince William's Cyberbullying Taskforce since it was set up in 2016, with a membership group that includes representatives from Facebook, Google, Snapchat and Twitter.

At the time, the prince said he was "appalled" about the abuse he saw on social media, saying he was "alarmed about the increasing reports of online bullying that were making headlines around the world".

Media coverage has portrayed cyberbullying as a rising "epidemic" among children and adolescents, blaming the ease and anonymity of online communications.

However, academic studies have failed to find widespread evidence of the phenomenon, something Mr Holmes said had influenced his thinking.

"Different studies have shown that there isn't such a prevalence of online bullying as there is compared to offline bullying," he said.

"We need to listen more to those studies... what's been missing in a lot of the conversations is that balance."

According to the largest ever study of cyberbullying, published in 2017 by researchers at Oxford University, less than 1% of 15-year-olds in England suffer online bullying regularly, whereas 27% are bullied face-to-face.

Mr Holmes said the Diana Award's research echoed this finding.

"We are seeing that there are far bigger problem offline in our schools particularly when it comes to bullying, compared to what's happening online."

However, academics cautioned that more work needed to be done to understand the impact of technology on young people's relationships.

"Online is very hard to escape, it's 24/7, and the images and messages that are part of it are often online forever, and that can be really upsetting," said Sonia Livingstone, professor of social psychology at the London School of Economics, citing Ofcom statistics which showed a rise in cyberbullying over time.

"The cyber bully and the cyber victim are often the same person. Online is a kind of space where people get hurt, then hit back and a kind of cycle continues."

In recent months, politicians have been taking steps to quell the threat of cyberbullying, including it in legislation designed to protect children online.

At the launch of the government's Online Harms White Paper in April, which classified cyberbullying alongside self-harm and suicide, terrorist content and online child sexual exploitation and abuse online, Home Secretary Sajid Javid told tech executives that their sites had become a "hunting ground for monsters".

In 2018, two years after setting up his Cyberbullying Taskforce, Prince William admitting that its achievements had been limited.

He attacked technology firms for their inaction on the issue, saying they had "a great deal to learn about the responsibilities that come with their significant power".

Mr Holmes agreed that "dealing with global companies" was "not the most straightforward task", but defended the work of the group, saying: "What came out of it was a really powerful educational campaign, 'Stop, Speak, Support', that's reached half of the schools in the country."

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