Tackling the dark side of social media

Tackling the dark side of social media

Norwood is confronting cyberbullying head on with a creative awareness campaign, #BeSocialWise

Francine Wolfisz is the Features Editor for Jewish News.

Norwood is tackling cyberbullying head on with a creative awareness campaign, #BeSocialWise
Norwood is tackling cyberbullying head on with a creative awareness campaign, #BeSocialWise

Growing up in a family where her parents struggled to provide even the basics for Rebecca – including food, bedding and clothing – was challenging enough for a young teenager, without having to then endure being bullied at school.

But even away from the playground and in the safety of her home, the teasing continued via social media. In Rebecca’s own words, there was “nowhere to escape”.

The 23-year-old scientist, who is currently studying for her PhD, recalls: “I was picked on an awful lot, because I didn’t have clean clothes. A picture was taken of me at school and posted on Facebook. Soon everyone was commenting and it was just awful.

“I remembered looking at it and thinking I’m at home, I’m not even around these people, but they are still having a huge impact on my life, despite not even being there.”

While her school was proactive in speaking to those responsible for posting the picture, outside the school gates Rebecca felt there was little to protect her from the cyberbullies.

“The rules of school didn’t extend to their home life,” she reflects.

For Rebecca and other victims of online bullying, the impact on a young person’s mental health can be significant.

Coupled with other pressures in today’s increasingly fast-paced world, it’s no surprise that more children and young adults are reporting symptoms of anxiety, low self-esteem and depression.

Recent statistics from the Mental Health Foundation show one-third of the UK population experience mental health problems each year – and 50% of mental health issues are established by age 14.

The NSPCC has also revealed a sharp rise in the number of mental health referrals in English schools, with a staggering 55% coming from primary schools.

While the root causes of mental health problems are complex, there is evidence suggesting social media can add to the problems already faced by young people.

Now Norwood is hoping to tackle the issues of cyberbullying and social media addiction through a new campaign, #BeSocialWise, as part of the charity’s wider Reach Out initiative supporting young people.

Norwood is the largest Jewish charity in the UK supporting vulnerable children and their families, children with special educational needs and people with learning disabilities and autism.

Watch Norwood’s campaign video here:

Launching on 3 July, the campaign is encouraging young people to “log on, wise up” and become more aware of how much they are using social media, whether they are staying safe online and to consider if their comments could be harmful to others.

Sue Cohen, Norwood’s psychological therapies manager, reveals that in her 16 years of working with the charity, social media is “something that has become more and more prevalent” among young people seeking help.

Cyberbullying is one issue faced by adolescents, but so too is the problem of becoming addicted to social media and reluctance to switch off from phones and iPads.

She explains: “Social media is not usually the reason why children are referred, but it does come up in conversations. Certainly some are more impacted than others, but we do often come across this feeling of not wanting to put down their phone or be left out of the loop.

“For some, their sleep is being interrupted, because they are on WhatsApp late at night, having conversations with people they have met online.

“For others, a rumour circulating on social media can make them become agitated and distracted, which impacts on their general health and wellbeing, as well as their capacity to learn.”

Addiction to social media is not a problem however restricted to teenagers.

Lisa West, deputy head of Wohl Ilford Jewish Primary School, has had to deal with children as young as seven staying up late at night messaging their friends and watching videos, while also trying to educate parents about keeping their children safe online.

“Children are getting access to social media at a younger and younger age,” laments West. “Parents are almost blindly allowing their children access to iPads, laptops and their phones, as a way of pacifying their children and giving them time to get on with a task. But I’m not sure they are as aware as they need to be to the dangers.”

West recalls how one unsupervised child was allowed to use an iPad late at night in their bedroom, while another was able to access videos with adult humour.

“We had another child in Year 5, who wanted to watch the songs from Frozen. At the end of the page there were these links and within just a few clicks, he was able to access a hugely inappropriate version of a song, which he then learnt and began singing in the playground.”

She advises parents to supervise their child, or at least have them within earshot when going online.

“I think it’s OK for parents to know everything their child is accessing, especially at primary school level. Technology is such a part of our children’s lives and their future – they just need to know how to use it safely and with their eyes wide open.”

For Rebecca, who received help and support from Norwood throughout her childhood, the online bullying eventually ceased, but as a young adult she is still more than wary of just how much others use social media.

“You often see people posting pictures having this amazing time and it can make you really conscious that you are not. No-one really talks about having a bad day. It makes you feel not normal, because you’re not feeling happy all the time, but in reality no-one is – they just portray that they are. I see all the time just how obsessed people have become with their phones and social media, but the reality is they are never missing out on what’s really important.

“It’s far better to live in the moment, rather than worry about everyone else.”

#BeSocialWise takes place on Tuesday 3 July. More at besocialwise.co.uk

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