This document was first published in the Leader magazine prior to our workshop at the NAPD (National Association of Principals and Deputies) Annual Conference 2015 under the title "Schools as Digital Bobbies". It examines the expanding dependence on school admins and staff to receive and manage reports of online harassment, image misuse and even grooming, and the difficulties that such reports give rise to. A couple of lines have been added to the original document to clarify context.
Schools are not well placed to manage incidents that originate or perpetuate in cyber space. The issues are complex and resource intensive to investigative and can present challenges even for the Gardai. The state for many years thrust responsibility for managing bullying and other inter-student ills upon schools staff. In the digital age, that is no longer an option.
In May 2014, a government appointed advisory body examining internet content governance offered its report beginning with a statement of the financial worth and benefits of the digital industry to our society. It further referred to our ‘Internet Safety System’ as being robust and capable of responding to online harms, particularly of an illegal nature.
In 2011 an EU-wide survey of 9 to 16 year olds found that Ireland was the safest place in Europe for young people online with 93% of parents mitigating their children’s activities on the Internet. The findings are reflected in the Seventh Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon to the Oireachtas in 2014:
“This data demonstrates that while risks certainly exist online, Irish children experience less risk than their EU counterpart. Many of the figures for risky behaviour such as meeting people first met online, or posting explicit images of themselves online are quite low. While efforts should continue to be made to reduce these even further, the empirical data is quite encouraging as it shows that children, educators, and care givers are generally aware of the potential risks that exist online and act to avoid them or reduce their impact”.
In fairness to Dr. Shannon, his findings are based on the much lauded and publicised 2011 report. It is against that backdrop that lawmakers work to shape the needs of our society in the digital age.
Young people interacting online leave a digital footprint that is the sum of all of their online activities. The nature of their individual footprint can be used by HR people to form an opinion that supports or otherwise the contents of a CV, and similar elements can bring a young person to the notice of people that would do them harm through harassment such as grooming, cyber-bullying and image misuse to highlight three common difficulties among that age group.
All forms of online harassment impact on the school environment. Affected students congregate and share information some of which is collectively harmful particularly since online innuendo and rumour are rife; truths, half-truths and lies combine to become greater ‘truths’ and small problems between young people that are manageable in the real world get completely out of hand, so fast that they are difficult to contain. Ordinarily the school is on the tail end of the process receiving a report from a parent or student when the flare up is matured and heated. Typically on the SARAH (shock, anger, resentment, acceptance and healing) scale, school staff are landed with the issue somewhere between shock and anger meaning that there is an awful long road to travel to solve the problem, whatever ‘solve’ looks like at the conclusion, assuming that there ever is one.
The tradition that bullying largely occurs in schools is no longer true. The school is a player, a piece of the jigsaw but absolutely not a source of investigation or remediation. And so it is reasonable to say that no school can be held responsible for determining the outcome of a cyber incident when at best it can only contribute to a solution in ways within its remit.
I meet many schools councellors and principals that want to refer incidents to An Garda Siochana who in turn have to establish that a crime has been committed to initiate an investigation from which court orders can be obtained to acquire the necessary information to prosecute. The law is not favourable to cyber harassment in its current form and requires sensible update make it easier for stakeholders to manage cases. I say, ’sensible’ because the wording of the law is one thing; resources to implement it are something completely different and for the most part, investigation of cyber crime is time consuming and resource intensive.
The one favourable factor about cyber bullying is that it is detectable and it is also possible to determine those involved, unlike instances of grooming and image misuse where victims are often unaware that they have been targeted.
What of students exploring relationships where one is consuming online pornography and is influenced by it?
The regulated pornography industry that existed in the era of VHS and DVD is completely overrun by what is termed user generated content where site users are sourcing or making their own material. This content is largely unregulated and often depicts teenagers making amateur porn either freely or under duress. It is of course no surprise that teenagers seeking this material for their personal entertainment are enacting what they see in the real world and that presents huge issues for those whom they encounter in relationships that are unprepared for such expectations.
Society must acknowledge online pornography and lay a grounding for students to understand that they have a choice; that the content is not reflective of mainstream relationships; that a person acquiescing with its consumers by extension acts the role of the porn star that very often suffers violence and denigration.
Grooming is a most horrendous crime against a child that is perpetrated in ways such that victims often never become aware that they have been targeted. It is personal engineering through means available in digital space to find, forge a path, influence, befriend, and where circumstance allow then sexually attack a victim through personal image, web cam, or physical encounter. Today we use terms such as ‘sextortion’ to describe sexually oriented blackmail. Financial and sex scams represent a primary threat to all young persons in addition to grooming and yet we have little structured education to prepare them to recognise such attacks.
Misuse of images on pornographic and image-sharing sites raise levels of stress for victims that have resulted in loss of life, self-harm, and present long term psychological challenges that are seldom resolved. The nature of the imagery varies depending on the source: images copied from social media, candids taken without the knowledge of the victim, partial or fully nude images shared for private use only, images involving a sexual act.
Our study named Digital Fish reveals evidence of victims as young as eleven having their images copied from their social media pages to web sites where they are displayed and commented upon for the pleasure of users. In many cases such commentary comes from persons that exhibit a blatant sexual interest in minors which is a concern since 80 of the (then - April 2015) 220 victims identified by us are easily identifiable because the uploading user has supplied the victim’s forename and surname initial; some victims are living in rural settings with few or a single school making tracing virtually certain; some of these victims appending geo-tagging data to photos and social media posts render tracing completely certain.
Those victims may only represent from ten to twenty percent of all those affected that are out there.
Instances of snaps depicting partial nudity of minors; revenge porn incidents; online abuse perpetrated against school’s staff; are all factors in digital space that have enabled abusers of children and adults alike to reach an adoring and unforgiving audience.
Victims may endure ridicule, bullying, online and physical sexual harassment and grooming, and can remain generally uninformed and unaware of their situation because the result of informing victims or parents is unpredictable and very often destructive.
From the moment of upload a risk exists, and this continues until a crime is committed at which time An Garda Siochana bring their expertise to the table, or the victim simply matures without incident. This means that we do nothing but wait and see if a risk elevates to a crime and that may be an appalling life changing event for a victim.
A very old saying: security through obscurity is no security at all meaning that hiding the front door key in the garden flower patch is obscurity, not security. That analogy applies well in the area of online protection of children.
But what of the victim that is aware and upset at the presence of their images on these sites; where do they go for assistance; who do they call?
Tusla seems overwhelmed by its existing workload and a non-nude image upload doesn’t supersede an actual abuse case. The Gardai can only investigate a confirmed crime meaning that the image would have to be in contravention of the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act and a ‘WezzGear’ image doesn’t apply.
In conclusion our ‘Internet Safety System’ is not robust and is incapable of responding to online harms that are not of an illegal nature. Schools are places of education and the online safety and reputation syllabus needs overhaul to benefit both staff and students.
Most of all it is without any foundation or logic that a school’s principal or guidance councillor should be presented with a situation where they are responsible for investigating or otherwise ensuring the safety of a student online. Such an officer of the school has little resources to call on for support and Ireland’s EU funded ‘Safer Internet Centre’ doesn’t actually exist. In fact a school’s principal may only have recourse to contact the local duty social worker or community Garda for support.
What will it take for change to happen?