Are cyberbullies really scaring schoolgirls into stripping online?

I’m always wary of scare stories that involve new technology – remember the scare over cameraphones being used to clone credit card numbers, which was widely reported despite the minor detail that such cloning had never happened? – and I’m equally wary of scare stories involving sexual misbehaviour. Combine the two and you end up with media panic over invented stories such as “toothing”, a hoax about people getting together for sex via the magic of Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones. I wonder if a similar panic is brewing over online bullying.

According to Reuters, “cyberbullies scare schoolgirls into stripping online”, and as I write this the story’s been printed verbatim in 21 different news sites. However, it shows all the signs of a scare story rather than a true one.

The story simply doesn’t justify the headline. In a series of focus groups featuring 47 children, researchers have found that in some cases (it doesn’t say how many), boys are pressuring their girlfriends to send them topless shots. Those shots are then circulated among the boys’ giggling friends, usually after the girlfriend becomes an ex-girlfriend.

Unpleasant? Reprehensible? Absolutely. But it’s not what the headline describes – a difference that, I suspect, won’t affect the inevitable tabloid coverage of the story. Perhaps it’s because “some teenage boys are dicks” doesn’t make such a scary headline.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure cyberbullying does happen. It certainly happens in the form of abusive SMSes and emails, and given that teenagers are generally bastards I don’t doubt that if a topless shot fell into the wrong hands it’d soon do the rounds of people’s mobiles or email inboxes. But equally, plenty of teenage girls don’t need to be coerced to parade themselves on webcams, to send their boyfriends cameraphone pics or to upload adults-only photos to

I’m reminded of a recent Lucy Mangan column in the Guardian where she reports on an apparent epidemic of STIs among schoolchildren. According to her friend, a community health worker, “The epidemic is thought to have come about through a combination of the novel opportunities offered by modern technology and the ancient and enduring blend of idiocy, atavism, vulnerability and vileness that has existed in children since time began.”

According to this friend, the epidemic of STIs is because of this: a boy persuades or bullies a girl into having sex, and he or a friend films it on a cameraphone. He then threatens to post the footage on YouTube, MySpace, whatever, and the only way to stop that happening is for the girl to have sex with all of his friends.

It’s all very unpleasant, but I do wonder if it’s true. Isn’t it possible that any explosion of teenage STIs is due not to technologically assisted sexual blackmail, but good old-fashioned teenage promiscuity?



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