For better or worse, in the new cyberspatial fourth dimension that is the internet, we have created a forum for anonymous communication and an information free-for-all. And one of the nastiest side-effects of the internet drug is cyberbullying, a fast-growing phenomenon in schools across the country, where children are both the perpetrators and targets.
One Gloucestershire teacher has said that cyberbullying is becoming so common that she now has to deal with a fresh case every week.
She says she had to ask the manager of a local cybercafe to remove MSN messenger from the computer system after she discovered that students had exchanged pictures of a drunken year nine girl lying in a stream with hypothermia after she had been beaten up.
The children had written in their internet messages that she had been kicked in the head. Meanwhile, a 12-year-old girl discovered she was the subject of a ‘hate website’ at school, a few days after falling out with a friend.
A speech bubble with the word ‘bitch’ had been inserted over her photograph and an online guest book had been created for visitors to sign.
“I was really upset,” said the girl, who asked not to be named. “When my friend told me to go on the website I thought she must be joking”.
In another recent case, a 14-year-old pupil from the same school was taunted for two hours by a group of girls at a party who sent her instant MSN messages saying “you’re a slag” and “no-one likes you”.
The torture then carried on at school – still indirectly - as the bullies sent friends and siblings over to the girl with messages like “we’re going to beat you up”.
“I wanted to move schools”, she said.
The girl added that she decided to stay after she told her teacher who gave printouts of the messages to the police.
“My mum said ‘you can’t be pushed out by bullies’” she said, adding:
“They’re just so pathetic, they’ve got to go to MSN because they can’t say it themselves”.
Figures show that the problem is now a widespread phenomenon: a report released by internet company MSN reveals that one in 10 teenagers are targeted by cyberbullies. Research by children’s charity NCH in 2005 put the figure at one in five.
The MSN study also indicates that, despite a major anti-bullying campaign backed by the government, the police and education authorities and charities, around half of parents are still unaware that the phenomenon exists.
The head of IT at the Gloucestershire school, whose identity I have been requested not to give so as not to damage the school's reputation, said the majority of problems with children on the internet begin in the home on services such as the hugely popular MSN instant messenger.
“We’ll never have an MSN type messaging service in school”, he asserted.
The previous system, where children had been given their own emails, was taken away because what he termed “unsavoury emails” were going out to members of the public.
He said that providing facilities for constant monitoring was hugely expensive.
“We are in the process of reintroducing it but until the filtering system is in place it costs £10,000 – £12,000 per year”.
“The internet is a living organism, it’s growing daily and you can’t keep on top of it every day.
“I’m confident that any naughtiness that does happen we can get to the bottom of pretty quickly” he added.
Angela Hatton, spokesperson for Parentline, a parent advice group, said: “We get a lot of calls from parents of both bullies and the bullied, and give a lot of advice as to what the parent can do to protect and support children, such as keep the computer in a family room.”
Natalie Mead, head of citizenship at MSN, said, alarmingly: “I suspect that cyberbullying will continue.”
“The biggest job we have to do is around educating and making people aware of how to use the internet responsibly.”
“I think that it’s a fact of life that a minority will abuse the system, but our role is to help the majority overcome these problems.”