social media

In the news #1: Trolls, abuse, threats and cyberbullying

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Stories have hit the UK headlines over the last couple of weeks which highlight the weaknesses of/lack of safety features within two popular social networks: Twitter and

The first is the stories of how campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez and classicist Mary Beard were sent threatening and abusive tweets on Twitter by ‘trolls‘. This has been followed by much debate as to whether social networks need to do more to protect their users, and what form this can take. One of the most popular calls has been for Twitter to implement a ‘report abuse button’ on every Tweet. This petition on the matter had over 130,000 supporters at the time of writing this post. However, the BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones pointed out that Twitter will find it difficult to strike a balance between maintaining free speech on the site whilst implementing a ‘report abuse button’.

The second story is that of the tragic death of Hannah Smith, who committed suicide after becoming the victim of bullying and abuse on the social network The suicides of four other UK and Irish teenagers have also been linked to bullying they received on social networks including This, like the Twitter stories, has led to calls for abuse to be dealt with more effectively by social network organizations and has also led to a boycott of by some UK advertisers. was not widely heard of before this case and with only 60 million users worldwide it is quite small when compared with other social networks. However, around 30 million of these users are under 18, so there is a good chance that your students will have heard of it and some might be using it. This article discusses 5 social networks teenagers are using in preference to Facebook in early 2013. It is worth reading this article and noting the common features of these sites and the differences they have from Facebook. Whilst we can ‘trend spot’, we need to ask whether we as teachers can know about, understand and educate about all the different social networks and platforms available. The answers is, of course, we can not. There are just too many social networks (see this constantly evolving list on Wikipedia of the most popular sites) in existence and like any other teenage trend, usage of them can go quickly in and out of fashion.

What we can do then is teach around the issues involved in these cases: Cyberbullying, abusive behaviour (on and off-line), and personal responsibility online.

My approach to a lesson/workshop/seminar for students in further or higher education would be to look at the issues around the area of online abuse and cyberbullying and create lesson activities to encourage debate. This allows for active learning which leads to factual understanding. The debate could be framed around issues of free speech and/or the legal and ethical issues involved. This could start and end with a whole class discussion and have, as an activity in the middle, group work involving scenarios, discussion points, statements or questions on cards given to the groups. The students could then work through the cards and produce a response, strategy or action plan which they could present back to the wider class.

Here is a selection of useful resources available for free online to help you to plan for teaching these complicated and sensitive issues. They are mainly written from a secondary (KS3 or KS4) perspective.

  • The TES website put together this article listing teaching resources around cyberbullying in 2011. The three videos on ‘Combating cyberbullying’ are particularly interesting.
  • Alexander Findlay posted this teaching resource to the TES Connect website. The idea for this KS2 and KS3 lesson is to explore what should be and should not be shared on a social network profile. Primarily based on a Facebook style social network, this could be adapted to allow for lively discussion in the classroom and could be used as part of a wider scheme of work to teach the differences and similarities between the real and the virtual world.
  • This resource from the USA provides an engaging practical activity which allows students to analyse material around cyberbullying and discuss the impact of it.

This article is the first in a series of ‘In the news’ articles. The aim is to highlight digital literacy issues in the headlines, identify the educational issues and suggest/link to teaching resources and ideas. Please feel free to comment below and provide more suggestions for teaching strategies and activities.