A leading anti-bullying charity says that over a quarter of a million primary schoolchildren are being persistently bullied online, sometimes with drastic consequences.
Smartphones; laptops; games consoles. These days, even very young children have access to the latest technology. But as new research by national charity Beatbullying shared exclusively with Channel 4 News, reveals, more than a quarter of a million primary-age children are persistently bullied online by their peers.
And making that statistic even more worrying, researchers at the University of Warwick have for the first time proved that children in this young age group who are bullied are significantly more likely to self-harm, or to plan or attempt suicide.
Channel 4 News visited a primary school in Penge, where children in Year 5 and 6, aged 9 – 11, shared their stories.
“Someone that used to be my friend said ‘Black piggy go back to your farm'”, one young girl told us.
“It makes me feel like someone’s just invaded part of my life”, said another classmate. The school has now teamed up with Beatbullying to deliver a ‘MiniMentors’ programme designed specifically for primary-age children. Another school we visit tells us it has carried out MiniMentors training with its Year 2 pupils – children just 6 years old.
Then we met Challis, 11, whose story of being bullied from the age of seven shocked us all.
It began with name-calling in the playground. Other pupils slapped and kicked her. But when Challis got her first computer at age 9, the bullies realised they had another way to reach her. There was a social network that most of her class belonged to. Challis signed up, wanting to be part of it.
“I saw a request to join a chat, and accepted,” she told us. ‘But it was a load of things being said about me: ‘Challis needs to get a life. She’s fat. She’s got no friends. She’s poor.'”
Despite her age, the bullies called Challis a “slag” and a “slut”. She told us that she felt her life “was taken over by these people”.
She quit the social network but the bullies got hold of her phone number, and the abuse continued.
“I didn’t go anywhere,” Challis told us. “I just sat on the sofa. I didn’t eat or drink. I pretty much deliberately made myself ill by not drinking. On one or two occasions I had to go to hospital it was so bad.”
Though Challis’ experiences are extreme, they are by no means unique. Research by Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick is the first to prove a link between bullying and self-harm – even suicide – in children of primary age.
Persistently bullied children, he found, are six times more likely than their peers to self-harm or commit suicide.
“We found children at that young age who had planned to harm themselves with the intention to die. That is very rare in children before 12 years of age,” Prof Wolke told us.
Challis’ life improved when she started secondary school this year. Supported by her mother and a Beatbullying anonymous mentor, she feels she is rising above her horrendous experience.
“I’m just trying to accomplish as much as I can,” she tells us, “so that when I’m old I can say: ;That did happen, but I’ve come through so much since then, and there was no point in doing any of it because it’s just made me stronger.'”