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"Online or 'cyberbullying' is the use of ICT (Information Communication Technology) particularly mobile phones and the internet to deliberately upset someone" DCSF 2007.

Online (cyber) bullying is becoming increasingly prevalent with the rapid advances and use of modern technology. Mobile, internet and wireless technologies have increased the pace of communication and brought significant benefits to users worldwide but their popularity provides increasing opportunity for misuse through 'cyberbullying', with worrying consequences.

It's crucial that children and young people as well as adults, use their devices and the internet safely and positively and they are aware of the consequences of misuse. As technology develops, bullying techniques can evolve to exploit it.

Education staff, parents and young people have to be constantly vigilant and work together to prevent this and tackle it wherever it appears. Online bullying is a method of bullying and should be viewed and treated the same as "real world" bullying and can happen to any member of the school community.

Further information about the role schools/settings have to play in preventing and tackling bullying can be found in our model anti-bullying policy template.

Online bullying is different to "normal" bullying

Online bullying is a method of bullying that is concerned with the use of ICT to upset, threaten or humiliate someone and should be treated as seriously as other forms of bullying. Online bullying rarely occurs in isolation and tends to include physical and emotional bullying offline.

Online bullying can feel harder to manage because:

  • It can take place 24/7 (creating a feeling of "no escape" for the victim) and is not restricted by location.

  • Electronic content is very hard to control once it has been posted and can never be guaranteed to be removed totally from circulation - this can be very upsetting to victims as they can never be sure who has viewed images/content about them.

  • Bullies can attempt to be anonymous and can feel "distanced" from the incident. They are often unaware of the laws regarding harassment and the fact online activity can be traced via "digital footprints."

  • "Bystanders" can easily become perpetrators by passing on videos/images/content or by filming incidents such as 'happy slapping' – they then become accessories.

  • Online bullying can sometimes occur unintentionally – often due to a lack of awareness/empathy, it may be seen as being just a joke.

  • Online bullying enables harassment and upset to take place across generations - age/size is not an issue (child to child, child to adult, adult to adult, adult to child) due to technology removing some of the power and size issues that would otherwise prevent it from occurring.

  • Online bullying can sometimes even be perpetrated by the victim themselves (known as digital self-harm).

  • One key positive with online bullying is that incidents can be used as evidence – for example, text messages, messenger conversations, screen shots. It is important that this evidence is kept, not deleted and the victim does not retaliate.

Types of online bullying

Research commissioned by the Anti-Bullying Alliance from Goldsmiths College, University of London, identifies seven categories of online (cyber) bullying:

  • Text message bullying involves sending unwelcome texts that are threatening or cause discomfort.

  • Picture/video clip bullying via mobile phone cameras or webcams is used to make the person being bullied feel threatened or embarrassed, with images usually sent to other people. 'Happy slapping' involves filming and sharing physical attacks.

  • Phone call bullying via mobile phone uses silent calls or abusive messages. Sometimes the bullied person's phone is stolen and used to harass others, who then think the phone owner is responsible. As with all mobile phone bullying, perpetrators often disguise their numbers, sometimes using someone else's phone to avoid being identified.

  • Email bullying makes use of email to send bullying or threatening messages, often with an invented pseudonym or using someone else's email address to pin the blame on them.

  • Chatroom bullying involves sending menacing or upsetting responses to children or young people when they are in a web or a based chat room. Increasingly children's gaming sites offer chat room functions so cyberbullying can occur on a variety of sites, apps and formats.

  • Bullying through Instant Messaging (IM) is an internet-based form of bullying where children and young people can be sent unpleasant messages or videos as they conduct real-time conversations online either through webcams, websites, tools or apps.

  • Bullying via websites includes the use of defamatory web logs (blogs), personal websites, social networking and online personal polling sites. Bullying via social media often with an invented specific pseudonym or may include using someone else's device, name or login to pin the blame on them.


'Trolling' is not quite the same as cyberbullying. Trolling is when someone deliberately posts inflammatory, offensive, or off-topic messages or comments online such as in a discussion forum, chat room, blog, or social media site. The main intent of this is to provoke an emotional response or disrupt normal on-topic discussion. People who take part in trolling are referred to as 'trolls'. Trolls often argue that their behaviour is a joke and is about creating mischief or demonstrating freedom of speech but for many the viciousness and often personal nature of the comments verges on hate speech, threats and bullying and can cause considerable distress.

Trolling can also have criminal consequences under the Malicious Communications Act as sending letters, electronic communications or articles which conveys a message that is indecent or highly offensive, a threat or false information. If the reason for that communication was to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person, then the sender is guilty of an offence whether those targeted actually receive the message or not.

The law and online (cyber) bullying

In November 2014 the Department for Education updated and published new guidance to enable schools to prevent and tackle bullying. The new content includes advice and information for headteachers and staff about how they can support pupils but also how they can protect themselves and respond to online bullying directed at staff. There is also new information for parents and carers regarding how they can support their child if they are affected by online bullying.

You can find the latest guidance on cyberbullying on the preventing and tackling bullying pages of the website.

There are a number of statutory obligations on schools with regard to behaviour which establish clear responsibilities to respond to online bullying. In particular, section 89 of the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

It states that every school must have measures to encourage good behaviour and prevent all forms of bullying amongst pupils. These measures should be part of the school's behaviour policy which must be communicated to all pupils, school staff and parents.

It also gives headteachers the ability to ensure that pupils behave when they are not on school premises or under the lawful control of school staff.

Headteachers have a specific statutory power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour outside of the school premises. Section 89(5) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006 gives headteachers the power to regulate pupils' conduct when they are not on school premises and are not under the lawful control or charge of a member of school staff (does not apply to independent schools). This can relate to any bullying incidents occurring anywhere off the school premises (including online). Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted on.

Regardless of if the bullying take place on or off site, the headteacher should also consider whether it is appropriate to notify the police of the actions taken against a pupil. If the misbehaviour could be criminal or poses a serious threat to a member of the public, the police should always be informed.

Under the Children Act 1989 a bullying incident should be addressed as a child protection concern when there is 'reasonable cause to suspect that a child is suffering, or is likely to suffer, significant harm'. Where this is the case, the school staff should report their concerns to the Education Safeguards Team. Even where safeguarding is not considered to be an issue, schools may need to draw on a range of external services to support the pupil who is experiencing bullying, or to tackle any underlying issue which has contributed to a child doing the bullying.

Although bullying in itself is not a specific criminal offence in the UK, it is important to bear in mind that some types of harassing or threatening behaviour or communications could be a criminal offence. For example, under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, the Malicious Communications Act 1988, the Communications Act 2003, and the Public Order Act 1986.

If staff feel that an offence may have been committed they should seek assistance from the police via 101. If it is an emergency (if someone is injured, in danger or there is a risk to someone's life) then contact 999.

For more information on how schools/settings should respond to online (cyberbullying) and for useful links please visit the Dealing with online (cyber) bullying page.

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