Earlier this year, a task force at Harvard University issued a report that reassured parents everywhere: the risk to children from online sexual predators, while it may exist, is not as significant as we may fear. However, the report also contained the more worrying finding that there is another, less sensational, problem which is not as widely acknowledged. As Cory Doctorow put it:
As a child of the 80s, I can find it hard to remember life before the Internet. I can certainly remember what it was like to buy a flight, or to look for a book, or not to waste time laughing at Zero Punctuation. It is harder for me to remember what it was like not to be able to look up virtually any fact at will, and it is harder still to remember how I kept in touch with friends before my relationship with the network was so intimate. But I am certainly old enough to remember all these things. Today’s 14-year old is not not, of course, and may wonder how we maintained friendships at all before Facebook and the SMS. Not to have access to the network in this way would represent a form of social exclusion for many children in developed and developing nations.
Something else I can remember about my own childhood – like most people – is being bullied on occasion. Happily, also like most people, I only experienced it a little, but I was also aware of children who were subjected to it systematically and over long periods of time.
If asked to name one characteristic of the bully, many people would identify cowardice. I am not sure that is true, but I am sure that bullies are people with problems. I am also sure that bullies prefer not to have to face the consequences of their actions. And thinking about it, it is little surprise that the Internet lends itself to bullying: it offers opportunities for cruelty, but also hiding places and anonymity. It is high time we thought about responses to bullying on the Internet.
Today, the UK charity BeatBullying launches their CyberMentors programme. And I am very pleased to say that Mozilla is a CyberMentors partner. The CyberMentors programme is a cyber version of one of BeatBullying’s proven methodologies. CyberMentors themselves help each other and the victims of cyberbullying and report instances of it, and help monitor social networks and other sites to identify hateful or bullying content.
How can we get involved?
Mozilla will be doing a few activities with BeatBullying throughout the year. The first is to sponsor 10 members of the Mozilla community (UK only, for now), to become CyberMentors. Anyone can become a Cybermentor, and there is no need for previous experience of working with children: the only pre-requisite is understand and empathy for those who are experiencing bullying.
What is expected of me, as a CyberMentor?
In order to join the programme, there is a training course and a CRB check (mandatory for anyone over 18) – Mozilla will pay for these. The induction training day is about 5 hours. As the training is in London, we will hope to find SE England-based community members first – and over time, the programme will roll out to the rest of the country. Once you are a qualified CyberMentor, it is expected that you will give at least 2 hours of your time each week over a period of 4 months.
If you are under 25, you will be trained as a senior Cyermentor. If you are over 25, you will be trained to help “mentor the mentors”, and be a senior coach.
I think that those of us in the Mozilla community have a lot to offer the CyberMentors programme. We tend to spend a lot of time online, and are probably more experienced that the average person in interacting with others in a virtual community. What’s more, we care about the Internet, and the place it is. So, if you are interested to be a CyberMentor and would like to learn more, please contact myself or William Quiviger. Places are limited – bullies are not.