Page last updated at 08:11 GMT, Tuesday, 9 February 2010

When the tech becomes unfriendly

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

Child sending text message, BBC
Many children suffer bullying via mobiles and the net

As Safer Internet Day emphasises ways for people to avoid trouble online, BBC News looks at what is behind so-called griefing and cyber bullying.

One day while playing World of Warcraft, I was walking through Elwynn Forest as I completed a quest or two.

On the dusty road between Goldshire and the Eastvale logging camp I passed a warrior who, as I approached, stopped and watched me pass by.

He followed, circling as I ran along the road. He said nothing. He just kept virtually nudging my avatar. When I stepped off the road into the wood he kept after me.

I stopped and asked what he wanted.

"Do you want to duel?"

"No," I said. Undeterred, he tailed me for the next five minutes pinging me a duel request every few seconds, trying to provoke me into lashing out.

As an example of griefing and cyber bullying the incident was irritating more than anything else. But it is a sad fact that for many people, the chance to abuse technology and the people that use it is just too tempting.

Abusive chat

Many virtual worlds and games that revolve around avatars see episodes of griefing and cyber bullying, said Tamara Littleton, head of forum management firm eModeration.

Ms Littleton has seen situations in virtual worlds where a group of people change the look of their avatars all at once and then crowd around another player. Some will block doors so characters cannot escape a room.

In online world There, which lets players buy and decorate in-game homes, Ms Littleton said that some people put up houses close to others and then deliberately make them unattractive.

"They make it horrible so they bring down the whole neighbourhood," she said. When everyone else leaves they buy up the virtual real estate and spread out.

Screenshot from World of Warcraft, Blizzard
Griefing and bullying takes many forms in online games

"There are all kinds of creative ways to bully people now," she said.

It doesn't just happen in games.

"In forums and communities based around the written word, that's where it happens an awful lot," said Ms Littleton. "We see a lot of people attacking each other with profanity."

"Where there are very polarised views such as about reality TV or anything where there is a fan base then we still see an awful lot of antagonistic behaviour," she said.

Some feel so strongly about a subject that they will follow the object of their abuse to other discussion forums and berate them there.

Some act to stop the abuse. In late January after the launch of the Apple iPad, Engadget shut down its discussion forums for a while because the comments were getting out of hand. The weight of interest in that device had attracted a lot of new readers many of whom were openly abusive of the interest regulars took in the iPad.

Web comic site XKCD took a more creative approach to managing one of its net chat channels. It uses software to look over the text people post and only lets through messages it has not seen before. Those with original thoughts see their comments appear.

While the system is not foolproof, it has cut back the amount of low level abuse that dogs many discussion forums.

Alone online

There are times when verbal sparring spills over into harassment and abuse. At particular risk are young people who are growing up with a lot of technologies but lack the experience to deal with what happens.

"Around 30% of 11-16 year olds have suffered cyber bullying," said Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive at charity Beatbullying. "About one in 13 are subject to persistent bullying."

The charity tries to help younger people that have suffered cyber bullying and teach children about good manners online.

Mr Piggin said growing use of technology made cyber bullying a pernicious force, far more so than when it is done face-to-face.

"It can be done via messages on a variety of platforms, mobile and social-networking sites," he said. "It's more pervasive and happens 24/7."

Telephone jack, Eyewire
Children fear being cut off if they tell their parents about being bullied

"People can be targeted in a traditional safe haven, their home, in their bedroom," he said. "They find it a lot more difficult to escape. They can feel so alone."

It happens, said Mr Piggin, because technology offers advantages for the bullies.

"If someone is hiding behind the perceived anonymity of the computer screen then it's often easier to write something out," he said. "It's much easier because you do not see the reaction and do not have to deal with the consequences."

Beatbullying is working with younger people to emphasise the connection between online and offline life.

"There are some things we do not do in the real world and we need to make that applicable online," he said. "There should not be a difference."

While online behaviour was starting to become more civil, said Mr Piggin, but it would take time because of the lack of help for young people.

"Adults do not understand," he said. "they do not tell their parents because they are sure that the first thing that will happen is that they will take their mobile away or stop them using the internet."

To offer an alternative route for help, Beatbullying operates a mentoring scheme in which people who have suffered bullying via the web or phone, help those going through it.

"We're providing young people with skills or tools to support themselves or support each other," he said. "We are making progress."

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