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National plan to combat online bullying

Cyber team: Allan McCullough, left, and Parry Aftab (Photograph by Jonathan Bell)

One of the world’s leading internet privacy experts is working with local students to develop a national action plan against online bullying and sexual harassment.

Bermuda’s youngsters, well acquainted with the internet’s nefarious side, are keen to help the initiative, according to Parry Aftab, a pioneer in the field of cyber law.

“We’re going to create a next generation of digital thinkers,” Ms Aftab told The Royal Gazette.

The founder of the online help group WiredSafety is now special adviser to the Bermuda Government’s Department of ICT Policy and Innovation, which is tasked with tackling the problem.

With her husband, child safety advocate Allan McCullough, Ms Aftab is drafting an island-wide programme to stamp out cyberbullying — “the first time ever a whole nation is involved”, she said.

Ms Aftab added: “The great thing about a country of 60,000 is that law enforcement, the courts and criminal justice system, mental health support groups and the schools are all connected. You have one degree of separation; everything is accessible here. And the children have been extraordinary. It just gives you faith.”

Bermudians, especially young people, conduct a significant portion of their lives online, and at one middle school “all the hands went up” when students were asked about morphing, in which the image of a person’s head or face gets transferred on to a naked body.

Familiarity with the practice does not imply actually engaging in it, she cautioned, describing the island’s youth as “very sophisticated”.

Nevertheless, “It’s a frightening world we are living in,” Ms Aftab said. “Little Bermuda has so much sexting.”

Digital trends have presented the island with challenges similar the world over, such as the rapid circulation of video clips that last year prompted the Bermuda Police Service to warn the public against swapping images that could constitute illegal child pornography.

Part of the national plan would tackle legislation. Ms Aftab said: “You have some good laws, and also some major gaps in your laws.”

After visiting many of the island’s schools, she aims to recruit middle and high-schoolers in plugging those gaps — culminating this December with “a summit or forum where young people will help run a global event where world leaders will be brought in on these issues”.

Ms Aftab is optimistic that the summit can draw representatives from the likes of Instagram and Google, YouTube and Nickelodeon. Her work on internet safety has been endorsed by major figures, including Vinton Cerf, a pioneering architect nicknamed the “father of the internet”.

She has addressed Interpol on cyberbullying, sat until recently on the board of Facebook, and continues to advise MTV’s public affairs board. WiredSafety, founded in 1995, is “the world’s oldest internet safety charity”, she said.

Later this summer, the Department of ICT Policy is to launch a cybersafety website to survey parents, children and educators, while online resources and apps specific to Bermuda will be offered with the input of schoolchildren.

Even as the internet presents fresh hazards to privacy, new tools are emerging, such as an app allowing young people to report sexting images to service providers. Using an encrypted signature, the private image can be traced by network operators, and removed.

“I have a huge cyberbullying app coming out in September or October, and there will be a variation for Bermuda,” Ms Aftab said, calling herself “flabbergasted” at the inventive resources suggested by local students, such as adding comforting pieces of scripture to the “power pack” of support for young people victimised online.

Suicide is a leading concern among Bermudian students, who typically refer to “kids dying” when asked why they would want to stop cyberbullying.

“They all know the name Amanda Todd,” Ms Aftab said, referring to the 15-year-old Canadian girl whose YouTube video, describing her torment after being blackmailed over intimate pictures online, has been watched more than 12 million times. Ms Todd posted it shortly before her death in 2012. Young people believe suicide from cyberbullying to be far more prevalent than actual figures suggest, Ms Aftab noted.

“If kids believe suicide is a regular occurrence, then they see it as normative behaviour. They think that’s the reality.”

Unlike older people who watched the internet emerge, children today see little separation between the online and offline worlds.

“Kids believe what they see online. It’s become a reality, even if it’s warped,” Ms Aftab said. “The most important thing is training middle and high-schoolers to be digital leaders.”

But her interactions with students left her impressed, with one girl telling her: “You don’t want to wait until it happens. You need to work on it now.”