The benefits of the internet and e-mail communication are well known and appreciated, and the speed and ease with which information can now be shared 24 hours a day and seven days a week is taken for granted. However, there are also disadvantages – and one key issue is cyberbullying.
Cyberbullying involves bullying or harassing others using new information and communication technology such as mobile phones, PDAs such as the BlackBerry, e-mails, websites and chat rooms. However, nearly all such technology leaves behind a record that can be produced as evidence of harassment or defamation at a later date.
The internet and more specifically “blogs”, or web-based journals, have provided a forum for anonymous comments to be posted in a location that is public and accessible to anyone with internet access.
The increasing popularity of mobile camera phones and social networking sites has added images to the mix. Unfortunately, not all postings are complimentary, and the faceless environment created by e-communication provides a playground, even for adults, in which bullying can thrive. Essentially anyone who has access to modern technology and who uses that technology inappropriately is potentially a cyberbully. Could this include anyone you know?
There have been a number of high-profile cases of cyberbullying in recent years, and the matter is of sufficient concern to the Government that it has formed a “cyberbullying task force” that brings together industry, education professionals and law enforcement agencies to tackle the issue. The Government is also looking at imposing duties on employers to stop discriminatory harassment of its staff online, alongside current discrimination law.
Research conducted at the end of 2006 and beginning of 2007 by the Teacher Support Network and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers indicated that 17 per cent of teachers have been bullied by mobile phone, e-mail or via the internet.
Institutions should have an internet-use policy that sets out what is and what is not acceptable online behaviour for those using their computer facilities. Increasingly, as well as setting out details of areas of the internet that staff may not access and the extent to which personal use is allowed in the workplace, such policies may specify what constitutes inappropriate use of the internet and may also outline how complaints of cyberbullying can be made through grievance and harassment and bullying policies. The first port of call for anyone suffering cyberbullying at work should therefore be such a policy.
While an institution will often be able to protect itself from claims, if the bullying has occurred in the workplace, by showing that it has taken all reasonable steps to prevent the harassment from occurring, the consequences for the cyberbully are extremely serious. In cases of serious workplace bullying, the bully will undoubtedly face disciplinary action and possibly dismissal from his or her employer.
For offences inside and outside the workplace, the bully may also face civil or criminal action from the victim, for example under the Protection from Harassment Act or potentially for defamation.
Bloggers should also be aware that the anonymity of websites is no longer something to be relied upon. The High Court has recently ruled that the owner of a website on which disgruntled individuals posted comments may be required to reveal his or her identity.