The Dark and Frightening World of Online Bullying; Social Media Trolls Have Hit the Headlines This Year, as Have the Resulting Tragic Cases of Teen Suicides. Ahead of National Anti-Bullying Week, Nilima Marshall Examines What Needs to Be Done to Stem the Tide of Online Bullying

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WHEN I was at university, I discovered that an email account using my identity had been created and circulated among staff and students, along with my phone number and personal information. The account was promptly deleted after I threatened police action, but the barrage of inappropriate text messages and voicemails to my mobile continued and I was forced to change my number.

At the time, eight years ago, it seemed like an unfortunate, but isolated, incident. Fast-forward to the present day though, and similar - and infinitely worse - online bullying has become the norm.

A recent survey commissioned by Anti-Bullying Alliance found more than half of children and young people in England accept cyberbullying as part of everyday life. A further study, by another anti-bullying charity, Ditch The Label, discovered that a staggering 69% of young people had experienced cyberbullying, with 20% saying it had been very extreme. Facebook, Ask.fm and Twitter were named the most likely sources of cyberbullying.

"The statistics are scary," says Sheryl Newman, operations director of Appetite for Learning, an IT training provider. But being scared does not mean this is a problem we can run away from.

"Children today use social media as a platform to communicate and form relationships," says Newman.

"So it's important we find a way to educate parents about social media." Certainly, with everevolving technology and new social media sites mushrooming every day, parents and teachers often feel ill-equipped to deal with the rising tide of internet abuse.

"Vulnerable children can become consumed by negative online comments towards them," says Anastasia de Waal, of Bullying UK.

"Cyberbullying, like all bullying, can have a devastating impact on a child's confidence and selfesteem."

Sadly, this can lead to heart-breaking consequences.

In the last year alone, there were repeated headlines of teens taking their own lives after suffering online bullying, including 14-year-old Hannah Smith from Leicestershire, Joshua Unsworth, 15, from Lancashire, and Erin Gallagher, 13, from Donegal. Then, of course, there are the innumerable victims who continue to suffer in silence.

Becky Owen was just 13 when she first joined Bebo, a social networking site popular amongst teenagers.

"I decided to upload a picture of myself that was taken at a relative's party," says Owen, now 17.

But what started as an attempt to make new friends turned into a nightmare of abusive posts. "A girl from my school commented saying I was an 'ugly bitch', that I was a 'skank' and that I 'needed to sort my life out'."

Realising that her profile was set to 'public' - which meant it could even be viewed by those who were not on her 'friends' list - she quickly changed it to 'private', hoping the bullying would stop.

But it didn't. "I had a few friend requests pop up, and because I wanted to make new friends I decided to accept them," says Owen. …