As Anti-Bullying Week kicks off, one social entrepreneur explains how online peer-to-peer support and web-based therapy help tens of thousands of teenagers.

Source: Start Empathy, 21 November 2013

The times when society believed that children should “toughen up” or “just deal with it” are over, but bullying nonetheless affects tens of thousands of children in the UK today. Almost half of all youngsters get bullied in school and increasingly, the problem has moved online.

IMG_1177_0Cyberbullying—defined by children’s charity BeatBullying as “campaigns of harassment conducted via communications technology such as the internet and mobile phones”—is estimated to affect around a quarter of secondary-age young people. Ashoka Fellow Emma-Jane Cross is providing solutions right where the problem is: on the web.

Before founding BeatBullying twelve years ago, Emma-Jane was doing her PhD research into domestic violence, lecturing at a university and working with mothers and their children in refuges. She soon realised that many of the children were affected by the home situation in ways she had not anticipated. They were often being bullied inside the refuge or in school and in some cases became bullies themselves.

With youngsters turning to her for help, Emma-Jane realised that there was no immediate support service she could turn to. Six months before she was due to finish her PhD, she made a decision that would change her life. She walked out of her office, away from the safety of an academic career and a financial stipend, and set out on a mission to stop bullying.

Since then, Emma-Jane has designed highly effective peer-to-peer mentoring methodologies and rolled them out into thousands of schools. With the introduction of the internet into children’s school and social lives, she brought the same services to a safe online environment. Trained young “BB mentors”—who often but not exclusively have experienced bullying themselves—log-in to a secure website where they offer support to peers in need across the country. The model has been endorsed by the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre.

The notion of providing support services to children via the web was unheard of when BeatBullying first piloted their method, says Emma-Jane. “We did a lot of research to back up our experiences. We proved that it works. We have security software and human monitoring in place to make it safe. And young people often prefer web-based mentoring as they feel more comfortable to talk about their issues in an online environment.”

Hundreds of thousands of young people now seek help through BeatBullying in the UK alone, and the model is currently being rolled out into nine European countries. Starting in November, BeatBullying real-time mentoring and counseling will be available to thousands of young Europeans in nine languages, including Spanish, Portuguese, and French.

Earlier this year, MindFull was launched as a separate service, providing specific mental health therapy via the same digital method.

“We realised that of the hundreds of thousands of youngsters that sought help on the site, some 40 percent were not actually being bullied, but they had other mental health problems. And many youngsters that were being bullied had other mental health issues as well. What was needed was the same instant support but in the form of professional therapy and counseling,” explains Emma-Jane.

In addition to online chats, the MindFull platform offers 11-17 year-olds professional psychological counseling via webcam. With an estimated 800,000 young people in the UK suffering from a mental health problem, the need for a scalable solution is great. MindFull claims it can provide easily accessible online therapy at just a quarter of the costs of face-to-face sessions.

A twelve-person strong safeguarding team investigates cases and works closely with social services and—where needed—alerts emergency services. In addition, advanced software solutions help to monitor live video streams.

Emma-Jane believes that learning from the “big guys” in the tech world is key. “I always say to people: think of YouTube. Billions of videos are uploaded and anyone can add to it, so why is it not full of pornography? The answer is that Google has skin recognition software and security robots that rip out anything that is not appropriate. They can moderate their content.”

MindFull will soon be applying similar technologies to videoconferencing, with the aim of creating a trusted space for young people to open up. Emma-Jane warns that nothing is ever 100 percent safe, neither online or offline. “It is sadly still true that children are most vulnerable inside their own homes. But I believe we have pioneered and proven that providing counseling to children online can be done safely and confidentially.”

Children often find out about BeatBullying and MindFull via friends on social media or through schools. When children first visit the site, a mentor will speak to them and refer them to the service they need at that time. Help can range from a five-minute chat with a peer to a conversation with a professional volunteer. On MindFull, young people needing specific therapy are referred to a contracted counselor or psychotherapist to get social networked and video counseling sessions.

Emma-Jane believes web sessions are at least as good as face-to-face support. “I personally think they can often be better because we have a whole range of professional therapists immediately available to a young person rather than just one,” she says. “The immediacy is important too, particularly when dealing with serious cases like suicidal tendencies. In some boroughs, youngsters have to wait two years to see a therapist. It is the glory of the Internet that we can provide such quality support straight away, anywhere.”

Anti-Bullying Week is from November 18-22. You can join the #BandTogether campaign on Twitter and get your wristband online.