My friend's son spends hours in his lair, as he calls it. That's a bedroom to you and me. His mum, Anne, knows he spends a lot of time on the internet, on his phone, chatting to friends. But are they friends - or are they foe?
Whether it's forums, FaceBook, texting or chat rooms, children are exposed to contact with other people who may not always be friendly. Even as an adult, it can be hard to shrug off less-than-friendly comments left on a forum, so what must it be like when you are a child?
I won't divulge too much, but several months ago someone on a forum I joined took exception to my asking for advice; in their mind I'd exceeded my quota. Given that the forum exists for the exchange of information, to everyone's benefit, I was startled.
Similarly, another member took me to task for what they perceived as disloyalty: I asked the same question on another forum, so they created a thread about this, without naming me, but giving enough information so I could be identified by anyone who wanted to dig. I was totally unaware of the furore until someone kindly emailed, "You okay?"
In each case, I was subjected to personal and public wrist slapping by email and on the forum.
It was hurtful, and I felt powerless. I also had a strong sense that this would not have happened in real life, although on this forum most people registered under their real names: the anonymity factor of some forums makes it so much easier to bully.
Jane had a similar experience:
"I'd been a member of a forum for years. It had been a good experience - people were friendly and were willing to share advice. A lot of people became real-life friends too. Occasionally there'd be a robust argument, but there were generally no hard feelings.
"But then there was an incident in which one of the members started taking the argument very personally and became excessively upset about it, and my contributions. To my horror, the next time I used Facebook, she'd posted an abusive message about me on her status, for all to see. I was taken aback - it would be seen by dozens of people who wouldn't even have a clue who I was."
Julia, who runs her own company, told me, "Someone misread a courteous, straight forward and innocuous email from my IT company and decided that instead of replying they would use their open personal Facebook page and blog to post their own version of events, including the name of my business and some highly colourful language. I felt violated."
And of course the problem with this kind of bullying is that it is hard to defend yourself.
If this is happening to adults, what about children? Every time I used to pop into my teenage daughter's room, I'd hear the msn "ping" as another message popped, often including language that was unrepeatable.
How do you know what your child is being subjected to?
My son's friend, an older teen well able to look after himself, was approached online by a man. Once his suspicions were raised, he played along, gathered evidence, set a honey-trap and informed the police. The man is now in jail.
Not all parents would condone this risky behaviour - but the point is what would the outcome have been if, instead of being a burly, highly intelligent 18-year-old, he had been a vulnerable 12-year-old girl?
I asked Kids Coach Naomi Richards for her advice on how parents of younger children could ensure their children are safe.
• Parents should join Facebook so they are aware of what it is about.
• Tell your child one of the conditions of them joining Facebook is that they have to be your FB friend.
• Explain reasons why you want to be their friend.
• Explain the difference to your child about friendships online versus real life and the dangers involved
• Advise them to only add people they know to their friends list.
• Always know what they are doing online and which chat rooms or forums they belong to.
Judy Reith, Director of Parenting People, concedes that cyber bullying is a growing problem. She advises parents to "Engage with the technology" in order to know what the risks are.
Another suggestion is to "Talk to your child's school and ask if they are willing to run a session on internet safety." As with all potentially dangerous situations, Judy advises parents to "Talk about the various scenarios with your children, so they know how to respond."
Most of the time, your child will be safe, but bullying is on the increase, so the message is to stay involved, up to date with the IT and talk to your child about the risks.
Watch the video below for more advice:
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