The digital playground bully

As another chat app raises fears about online harassment of children, it’s clear that parents, teachers and young people must work together to challenge this behaviour. Eimear Dodd reports

Access to chat app SimSimi was suspended for Irish users last week following concerns that it could be used inappropriately.

The app is the latest social media platform that has been associated with the risk of cyberbullying, particularly of children and young people.

While all forms of bullying can result in damage to the victim, cyberbullying appears to provoke additional worries.  

Among the findings of the Webwise 2017 Parents Survey, the risk that their child might be bullied online was identified as a major concern for Irish parents.

Cyberbullying involves using technology to carry out malicious actions against an individual. It can be as straightforward as sending messages intended to threaten, abuse or harm someone on social media.

At the extreme, it can involve anonymous messages and impersonating the victim online.

Depending on the platform, a perpetrator can quickly spread harmful content to a wider audience. If the content goes viral, the hurt and shame experienced by the victim can be amplified further.

Additionally, the messages can remain online indefinitely where they can continue to cause damage to a victim’s reputation.

“Cyber bullying isn’t more difficult to identify than traditional bullying.” said Liam Challenor, PhD researcher and trainer at the National Anti Bullying Research and Resource Centre (ABC) based in Dublin City University.

“It can sometimes be more difficult for a school or workplace to identify who a cyberbully is but not the actions they conduct as they are public in most situations,” he told The City.

Chatting with robots

The popular chat app SimSimi became the focus of concern that it could be used as a platform for cyberbullying.

Marketed as a “super advanced chatting robot that makes amusing conversation”, users type a message which the bot will then reply to. It simulates a conversation by scanning its database of user generated content and selecting an appropriate response.

User anonymity means that the app could be used as a forum for hurtful and abusive content. The app is rated as 16 years or older in the Apple, Android and Windows app stores.

However, its bright colour palette and anime inspired style may have made it particularly attractive to younger users.

And it appears that the developers recognised the possibility that their app could be misused. Part of the app’s description in the Windows app store says:

“SimSimi was originally developed to be a fun and friendly chatting robot. Things SimSimi says are totally taught by users and not intended by the developer. This means there are some abusers that are making SimSimi to say nasty words.”

The product descriptions in the Apple and Android app stores also contain similar wording.

As reported in the Irish Times, access to the app was suspended for Irish users on 29 March 2017.

The BBC later reported that schools in Northern Ireland had also begun to warn parents about the potential risks of the app.  

Social spaces?

Many social media platforms have been associated with instances of harassment and inappropriate behaviour. Facebook and Twitter both have well-documented problems with responding to concerns about online shaming and cyberbullying.

However, newer apps are attracting younger users to online spaces that parents and many adults may never have heard about. and Kik are two examples of messaging apps that have been associated with instances of cyberbullying.

In December 2016, concerns were raised that Yellow – an app that connected users based on their location – could be used for harassment and inappropriate behaviour.

Social media companies have been developing tools to respond to the risks of cyberbullying. It is becoming easier to report and block users who engage in negative behaviours online.

But parents also have a role to play. And this becomes harder if they are not aware of their child’s social media use.  

Parenting digital native children

There appears to be a digital divide between parents and children.  A 2016 survey by ABC of Irish parents’ internet usage and knowledge found that less than 20% of parents surveyed monitor their children’s use of social media.

Instead, most parents rely on their children telling them about their online activity. If young people do not share their online activity with their parents, then this could leave them vulnerable.

Liam Challenor of ABC says that “…parents must take an active role to mentor their children to be responsible digital citizens. To do this they need to have open discussions without judgement to let their child feel supported if they have a problem online.”

“Parents can talk to their children about their networks, ensuring they have the right privacy and safety features and that they know how to report something online.”

“Parents that feel they don’t have the digital skills to engage in these conversations can visit various websites for support to learn how to use apps…Then the discussion can move to how their child’s digital reputation is important and how they should reflect on their behaviour and how it can affect another person online and offline.”

In collaboration with researchers in French-speaking Belgium, Italy and Greece, ABC took part in a review of existing mechanism and supports to deal with bullying within the school environment was undertaken.

Published in 2015, the project report identified that efforts to address bullying must involve parents, teachers and schools. It also recommended that young people be taught the risks of online behaviour and encouraged to treat each other with respect and dignity.

The digital playground is a complex place. It can bring many positives into the lives of young people. However, it can also be a dangerous space.

Dealing with bad behaviour online requires an awareness of the risks. It appears that everyone has a part to play in making digital spaces safe for all, and particularly for younger users.

Parents can talk to their children about their networks, ensuring they have the right privacy and safety features and that they know how to report something online.”

How to deal with cyberbullying

It can very challenging to deal with a bully so as to prevent the situation escalating. We asked Liam Challenor of ABC for some tips on how to respond:

  • Take screenshots of any posts/messages
  • Don’t reply to the sender
  • Block the offender and remove them as a friend
  • Involve a grown up! Speak with a parent, older sibling or teacher.
  • Report any problems promptly to the website/app.
  • Serious issues should involve the Gardaí e.g. inappropriate sexual suggestions, racist remarks, ongoing bullying or harassment.

Bystanders can prevent cyberbullying by:

  • Not passing on any messages.
  • Reporting messages to the website/app.
  • Asking the victim if they are ok.
  • Blocking people who bully online.
  • Telling a trusted adult, teacher, parent or older sibling.

Other supports

National Anti Bullying Research and Resource Centre: 01-8842012

Childline: Children can text ‘BULLY’ to 50101 or call 1800 66 66 66


Feature Image by Eimear Dodd, original used with permission

One comment

  1. Dealing with bad behaviour online requires an awareness of the risks. It appears that everyone has a part to play in making digital spaces safe for all, and particularly for younger users.

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