13/05/2013 18:40 BST | Updated 13/07/2013 06:12 BST

Cyber-Bullying and Young People


This report in the Herald newspaper today, about teachers being cyber-bullied by pupils, came while I was writing about cyber-bullying amongst teenagers, for a book on teenage stress. Since I've been talking about this on (ironically) Facebook and Twitter and on my blog, I've been contacted by many parents whose young people have been cyber-bullied. A crime where you don't have to look in your victim's eyes while you're doing it. A crime in which the supposedly weak can attack the supposedly strong, where muscles don't matter.

I think we need to understand a few things about young people if we are to tackle this appalling bullying - whether of teachers or of each other. I write and speak about the teenage brain and a few thoughts occur.

Something I kept coming across in my research was the at-first-surprising notion that many young people don't consider cyber-bullying to be bullying. They know what bullying is - or rather, they know what some bullying activities are - and they know that stuff can happen online, but they don't always see that as bullying. Why? Because it is different from offline. How is it different? Because it's online. QED. Bullying, to many children and younger teenagers, is what they've been taught bullying is: hurting, laughing, dumping schoolbags in bins, physically threatening, ignoring. Online stuff is not those things, or not obviously. Therefore, to many young minds, not the same. They've also been taught that bullies choose weaker victims, whereas teachers are supposed to be stronger, so, again, a young mind may think that a teacher can't be bullied by a pupil.

Also, if it hasn't happened to them, they may think online cruelty is not so bad as face-to-face stuff. They can imagine being punched, teased, ganged up on in school, because they've probably seen it even if it hasn't happened to them. But they may not be able to imagine being cyber-bullied. Why not? Well, partly because children and teenagers find it harder (not impossible, and not always, but harder) to empathise in a nuanced way when they have no experience and haven't thought about it much. They can't see the victims, have no visual clues. The adolescent prefrontal cortex is undeveloped and this kind of sophisticated depth of intentionality (Theory of Mind, the ability to guess what might be in other minds) requires that area of the brain. They may also find it hard to imagine adults feeling hurt, feeling traumatised; they just may not think that far ahead.

With these less well developed prefrontal cortices, (which also, by the way, make it harder for them to resist instant retaliation,) children and young teenagers often understand things better with practical examples and may find it harder to link specifics to abstracts. So, they know that A, B and C are examples of bullying; but "bullying" is an abstract concept so they don't necessarily realise that P, Q and R are also part of "bullying".

So, what can we do about it, apart from condemning it? I think we have to be their prefrontal cortex. Help them think more widely than specifics by challenging their thinking, developing it with discussion. Show them that, just as face-to-face taunts and violence and thefts and threats are bullying, so is what happens online or by phone. Show them that adults can be destroyed by bullying, too. If we understand that some teenagers are less able to look ahead at consequences, we have to show them what those consequences are. "How would you feel if...?" is a good question to explore.

We can, and I believe should, also talk about libel and slander, the defamation laws designed to protect us from harmful lies being spread about us. Do young people realise that some cyber-bullying is potentially a criminal offence? No one who has talked to me about cyber-bullying has mentioned this. I'm not suggesting we lock up a young cyber-bully, just as I wouldn't suggest we lock up a young thief. But I am suggesting that we make sure they realise exactly how serious this can be. How can they know if we don't tell them? We expect them to understand things because they seem obvious to us. We shouldn't.

There are inspiring cases of young people themselves taking action, forming official support groups in school and making their schools free of online (and other) bullies. They are the best people to spearhead this, but they need our support. And they need the benefit of our supposedly developed cortices, to show and explain the wider consequences of actions, and to help other teenagers move from examples to abstracts. To help them see that just as cyber-bullying is bullying, adults can be victims, too.

Next week, it's Mental Health Awareness Week and bullying causes mental stress, to adults and teenagers. Let's empower our young people to carry the message through their schools: all this is bullying and it is all wrong.

As a post-script: if you are a parent of a secondary school pupil, you might be interested in this anonymous questionnaire. It gives you a chance to offer your insights and advice and I can take this message when I visit schools and talk about teenage stress.