A new school year has begun, and with it eight million pupils are now starting classes. A new term brings fresh hopes amongst teachers, parents and children alike that what lies ahead for them will be beneficial and enjoyable. Teachers will be planning new and exciting lessons for their students and pupils will be catching up with their friends after a long summer break. A new challenge awaits many pupils - but not all of these challenges are particularly welcoming.
The start of term can be a daunting prospect for some pupils. For many, they'll be starting a new school. For those going to secondary school, the likelihood is that they will begin using social media in order to help them make friends and adjust to the new school, even though they are below the intended age for them. For the most part, social media networks offer a great opportunity for children to make friends, share common interests, learn, have fun and make connections. However, it also presents potential risks around social networks and communication channels that parents and teachers may struggle to monitor. It's no coincidence then that starting or being back at school is also when we see an online spike in searches for cyberbullying shoot up.
In fact, over one in five young people now experience cyberbullying. This is a significant problem that both teachers and parents need to be aware of and help to tackle; but to do so they need to know what they are looking for. Factors that could indicate whether a child is being cyberbullied include their emotional state; if they're becoming withdrawn, shy, anxious, depressed or angry for no reason, for instance. Other tell-tale signs are also if the child shows signs of not wanting to go to school, a drop in grades, skipping class and getting in to trouble.
Cyberbullying has all the hallmarks of natural, playground-type bullying, but it's arguably worse. Cyberbullying doesn't just stop at the school gates - it follows children home. The 'always-on' culture of many of today's children means they're potentially a Facebook scroll or a PlayStation session away from a volley of verbal abuse. This isn't a regular occurrence, of course, and there are measures in place to ban or report 'flaming'. But it's deeply scarring for all involved if it does happen.
Cyberbullying can't always be prevented, but there are measures that schools and parents can take to mitigate the risks. Parents need to ensure they are carefully monitoring their children's online use, so that they are kept up to date with who they are talking to, and what they are looking at online. This involves regular conversations with your children about the dos and don'ts of what to say if cyberbullied and how to report the issue.
Schools should also regularly review their anti-bullying policy, getting feedback from students of different ages to ensure that it is up to date, and that students feel appropriately safeguarded and protected. There are also solutions that schools can have in place to help them more accurately identify cyber bullying, by monitoring key strokes of pupils that flag inappropriate behaviour to detect cyberbullying at school.
While it's not possible to completely eradicate issues such as cyberbullying, if educational establishments have the smartest web filtering and monitoring in action, they then have a solid foundation from which they can protect children from all kinds of nasty threats online. Going back to school should be an exciting time for young people. It should be a place where they feel safe, nurtured and supported. Just like in the normal playground, children need to be protected in their online playgrounds as well.
We all need to make sure protecting children from cyberbullying is a collaborative effort, providing them the safe sanctuary for learning that schools should be.