The last few weeks we have seen rotten and thoroughly unacceptable online behaviour with sadly tragic consequences.
Our timelines have been filled with untold horrors including evidence of rape threats, death and bomb threats, sexual violence and extreme online bullying. My thoughts of course go out to the individuals and families who are dealing with threats of violence, with violence and with deaths of loved ones.
Against that backdrop there is, it seems, a welcome and important change afoot based on a reawakened realisation that misogyny and bullying is alive, well and kicking, and a collective determination to do something about it. This time the media focus is on behaviours displayed online. Important though it is to find cyber-solutions, let us remember bad behaviour is not new to our era. There are many examples of 'off line trolling' such as the protesters at the funeral of 21 year old man Matthew Shepard who was brutally murdered. Despicably anti gay protesters turned up with banners showing 'Matt in Hell and No Fags in Heaven'.
Technological solutions of course play an important part. Like 'porn filters' technology cannot provide the whole answer. I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Cameron, sites must step up to the plate and do all they reasonably can to ensure online bullying does not happen, and where it does they must tackle it. I also agree that parents and children must have much more discussion about online activity, and to be able to seek help and support when they need to.
There is of course an insidious problem with online behaviour – many parents and professionals feel flummoxed about what to do to tackle online behaviours. We mustn't. Just like our off line lives we can and must nurture the courage, confidence and skills to shut down, disable accounts and walk away.
Of course people are looking for the tough response. Calling for a site to shut down is a tough response. Deep down however, do we believe it will fully achieve the change we need to see? If somebody I loved was hurt online I would want to shut down the site too. But that doesn't make it a cure-all response that will create the right results. Imagine if we shut down every school, college, university and workplace where serious bullying takes place. However, like schools and other institutions, the online sites must respond proactively to tackle bullying.
So the task is much more fundamental and much bigger than closing down a site now and another next month – it is one that challenges the way we live and changes our cultural and social norms. It requires a willingness and desire to live side by side with people the same and different from us and sustained coherent public policy which supports that goal. It requires cultural and societal change from the very top which determines that bullying, violence and prejudice in all its forms including misogyny and homophobia is completely unacceptable on or off line. Always and without argument these cannot be tolerated whether in our parliamentary chambers, our primary school playgrounds or our social networking sites.
And that requires considerable changes to what we teach children and young people – not just about online safety and cyber bullying – but about structural inequalities and the nature and abuse of power, about prejudice and bullying, respect and consent. It also requires us all to learn to manage conflict, its importance for fulfilling lives and how to respond and manage it well and where to go for help and support.
That education is a job for all. It must be at home, at school and in the community – in our churches, our youth clubs and voluntary youth provision. That is why again I would have liked Mr Cameron to focus on the role of education too. Wouldn't it have been fantastic if he had said today: "Until now we have got it wrong on PSHE education. It’s time for change and time to make sure every child in every school gets excellent Personal, Social, Health and Economic education that prepares them to manage their lives on and off line both now and in the future. I want to make sure every child and young person receives PSHE education that has equality at its heart, ensures children and young people know bullying and prejudice is always wrong, and that help is always available however big or little an issue seems."
In the end it comes down to this – our best tool for change is positive education that creates new norms. Yes we must demand that social networking sites do all they can and be accountable for doing all they can. We must expect investment in technological solutions so they do all they can. But violence and bullying is done by people and we must recognise technological solutions will not be able to compensate for the attitudes that leads to bullying behaviour.
We cannot continue to only react when things go wrong and lives are lost – we must make active steps to prevent this from happening. And we must not continue to condemn young people for unacceptable behaviour and bullying without investing the time, energy and money to help young people lead the way in creating positive social norms and pro-social behaviours.
There is now a wasted opportunity – the new National Curriculum consultation closes today, as it currently stands it will not ensure all children and young people get good quality PSHE education which will help them develop the skills, personal qualities and behaviours to manage their on and off line lives.
Against this backdrop of extreme concern we must also remember that overall the Internet is a positive force for good. Everyday it provides vital advice, information and support for all children and young people – including those who are being bullied such as that provided by www.brook.org.uk, www.thesite.org and Beat Bullying's cyber mentors http://www.beatbullying.org/. A group of young people I talked to earlier this week were also keen to remind me that most young people are 'fairly nice' and do not bully and hurt others. Even in hard and emotional times we must remember this, while working together to change the behaviour of those who engage in bullying behaviour, and giving help and ensure the best support to those who are targeted.