Bullies find victims in cyberspace

Anti-social behaviour once seen only in the classroom is now rearing its head on online social networking sites.

ABU DHABI // Bullying at school between pupils is moving off the playground and into cyberspace where it is less physically threatening but far harder to police, warn principals and teachers. As students spend increasing amounts of their lives online, computers are turning into a new weapon for bullies with e-mails and social-networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace being used to intimidate or torment other children.

Several international schools now have policies to deal with cyberbullying and the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which oversees all schools in the capital, has included it in a new set of guidelines on behaviour and discipline to be followed in all schools in the emirate. "People who don't really know you get your e-mail address," said Tarek, an 18-year-old pupil in Abu Dhabi, who recalled his own experiences in middle school with cyberbullies.

"It ends up being some random person who says, 'I saw you on the weekend, here and here. I'm going to find you and beat you up'." Dr George Robinson, the superintendent at the American Community School (ACS) in Abu Dhabi, said: "Any time you have groups of young people together varying sorts of harassment can occur." The difference, of course, is that online interactions occur away from the eyes of parents and teachers.

Like many other international schools, ACS has an extensive policy in place which deals with all forms of bullying, including online. But bullying must be detected before it can be punished. "The easiest thing to deal with are the things that are physical, because they are easier observed," Dr Robinson said. "Cyberbullying, the stuff that happens is not even at school; the things happen on Facebook, MySpace, and e-mail. It's something that didn't exist 10 years ago."

Dr Robinson said ACS is actively engaged on working with pupils to address the issue. "It's probably the front edge of inappropriate behaviour among kids. It's a real challenge," he said. Wayne MacInnis, the principal of Raha International, an International Baccalaureate school in the capital, agreed that cyberbullying is becoming more of an issue. He said old-style bullying still takes place, though it is not a major problem at Raha.

"If a school says they don't have bullies they probably just don't know about it," Mr MacInnis said, adding that bullying is at its apex in middle school. Mr MacInnis said the school has different strategies to deal with the problem, including "lunch-brunch" meetings where school counsellors talk with middle-school girls about appropriate ways to act out their anger. In early March, the school will hold a session on cyber safety.

Mr MacInnis said cyberbullying has increasingly become a problem as children use social networking sites more often. "The kids are on Facebook a lot. They don't have access here at the school, but they do it at home and at night," Mr MacInnis said. "It's important for myself that the kids feel welcome and happy to be at school," he said, explaining why Raha takes action on bullying that may take place outside school hours.

"Usually I ask the parents to print it out and that's used as evidence. Now we're following up with cyber-safety sessions." As part of a new policy on behaviour and discipline, Adec said all schools would be required to have policies and procedures in place to specifically address bullying and its consequences. "Bullying and other forms of student harassment will be prohibited in Abu Dhabi schools," said the council in a statement.

"We've dealt with cyberbullying before," said Allan Forbes, the head teacher at the English College in Dubai. "The problem that you've got is that with all the different sites out there where students can chat, it's not necessarily something that's focused in school." The issue, he added, requires a different approach. "It needs to be a three-way situation, where the school is dealing with it, the student is aware that we know, and the parents need to be much more aware of how students can communicate with each other."

He added: "The ease with which students can tap into each others' lives is developing by the month." Gareth Jones, the director of the American International School Abu Dhabi, said that bullying has not been a major issue at his school. "But kids will find new ways of doing it and the whole cyberbullying, this is a new way of doing what they used to do by passing notes around the classroom or by face-to-face confrontations."

Andy, a grade 12 pupil in Abu Dhabi, said that cyberbullying has not been a major problem at his own school and added that he thinks the issue may be more acute among younger students. "In middle school," he said, "the students are not necessarily mature enough to handle social media tools like Facebook and instant messaging," he said. "Bullying that may take place on the playground is sort of enhanced by that."