Technology makes life easy for bullies, but even more unbearable for victims.
For children across the world bullying causes immeasurable misery and pain. Easily dismissed by grown-ups claiming to have been there themselves - with phrases like "what doesn't kill us only makes us stronger" - bullying is an issue that has always existed in schools.
But in the broadband age we're always connected, and that includes our children with their array of mobile gadgetry. So when the bullies migrate online, their victims can no longer escape. Cyber bullying - as it's better known - has grown enormously in recent years, and is capable of severe emotional and physical damage.
It has even resulted in children committing suicide; taking their own lives when they feel they have nowhere left to turn. This is clearly a problem that needs to be addressed.
The Big March
Last Thursday, children's charity Beatbullying held the world's first virtual protest, encouraging people to sign up and create a digital character. Their likenesses then "marched" across all kinds of websites which agreed to take part, helping to raise awareness of cyber bullying and the groups that are trying to help. But a secondary aim was to petition the UN to do more to tackle the issue.
Richard Piggin, deputy CEO of Beatbullying, explained: "Currently, the Convention on the Rights of the Child lists the different rights of young people. We believe children have a right to live free from bullying, harassment and abuse - and we want that to be explicitly stated. Not just 'abuse', but to actually include the word 'bullying' in there too."
Over a million people supported the campaign from 191 different countries. As well as individuals, 1,700 companies also got involved, 80% of which were international organisations. "Even though Beatbullying is a UK charity, we acknowledge that bullying exists all over the world - it's a global issue that affects young people everywhere.
"But we believe children have a basic right not to be bullied, and to lead a life free from bullying."
How serious is cyber bullying?
Over the past few years we've seen endless headlines warning of cyber bullying and its harmful impact. But does that mean the problem is getting worse? Has the internet made bullying more common, or more severe? Or has online communication simply altered its definition?
According to research by Beatbullying, 28% of the UK's 11 to 16-year-olds have been victims of cyber bullying. Richard said: "The internet has just facilitated bullying, making it easier for young people to behave in a certain way. So the issue is still the same, but what we see now is a different kind of bullying - there are just a few key differences.
"I mean 15 or 20 years ago, if you were being bullied at school - and it is still a big issue for schools - it was likely you wereonly bullied in school. So when the last bell rang in the afternoon, you could go back to the sanctuary of your own home and escape it. You couldn't be touched.
"But that's different now. It went from email a few years ago - which itself was an issue with young people sending vicious, vitriolic emails - but social networking has taken it a step further. And on top of that, most children now have a mobile phone - lots of them connected to the internet."
So technology makes it possible for bullies to harass their victims at any time of the day or night, but that's not the only reason why cyber bullying needs to be taken seriously. For many youngsters, there's an added fear that what is said online could reach a potentially limitless audience.
Richard explained: "If you were being bullied at school, or face-to-face 'offline', then maybe a few people would know or even a teacher may be aware of it. And if it was happening in the playground then a few people might see an opportunity to join in. But that would be it.
"Now, because cyber bullying takes place online, we see profile pages or websites being created and shared on social networks - and suddenly the audience is huge. You're never really sure how many people have seen it or who knows what's been happening to you. And the capacity for anyone to join in means you get a bit of a mob mentality."
Prior to the internet revolution, when the majority of bullying happened face-to-face, it was in part restricted to those willing to be publicly known as - and to behave like - a bully. So it was only really the kids who were willing to risk the consequences of their actions doing it.
The internet allows for a level of "invisibility", which means people who might never engage in offline bullying can carry out a campaign of harassment under a cloak of anonymity, removing one of the main barriers to bullying behaviour.
And sometimes the abuse comes from people the child may have never even met before. Richard believes being targeted in this way can be "really destabilising" for a young person affected by cyber bullying. "You've got to walk into school the next day, having no idea who knows about it. The whole school could know," he explained.
Is there a solution?
For many, bullying has always been a part of growing up. It's a painful and unnecessary part, but seemingly unpreventable nonetheless. So when the issue inevitably arises, it's essential that children, their parents and teachers are equipped to deal with it effectively.
The first step for parents is to understand cyber bullying and not dismiss it as "virtual bullying" or something that will pass with time. They also need to be aware of the risks, and educate their kids in how to stay safe, as well as, crucially, who they can talk to if problems occur.
"It's exactly the same as children playing in the park. When they're younger, you're with them to make sure they're safe. But there will come a time when they're going to the park without you. So you need to give them the tools, the confidence and all the abilities to keep themselves safe.
"Most importantly, it's about creating an environment where - if something does go wrong - your child knows where to go for help, so they never feel alone."
Who can help?
Children need to be taught from the start that anything making them feel sad, uncomfortable or scared must be reported immediately to someone who can help. But it might not necessarily be mum and dad, said Richard.
"If it's an eight-year-old, then yes, they probably will report it to their parents. But if your child's 15 then you need to understand they're maybe not going to talk to you about it."
Let's not forget that teenagers feel acute embarrassment. They might be ashamed of something that's happened, or uncomfortable showing their parents something rude that's been posted about them online. On top of that, they might be afraid that their smartphone or laptop will be taken away from them - the worst outcome imaginable to most young people.
"That's not really the solution," the expert added. "As a parent, you can get help when it's needed. You've hopefully given them all they need to keep themselves safe - but remember that something bad could still happen.
"It's usually through no fault of their own, but even when it is - maybe they made a mistake, got over confident or did something stupid because they're 15 - they must know how to get help."
CyberMentors is a website that uses a social networking model to allow young people to support and mentor each other. It's a place where kids and teens can get confidential advice on how to deal with anything that's troubling them online.
Should websites be doing more?
One of the big questions is whether social networks like Facebook and Twitter - where much of the world's cyber bullying takes place - could do more to help victims. "There is more they could do," said the expert. "The safety of their users should be priority, particularly children.
"Victims of cyber bullying typically want two things to happen. They want the nasty things said about them to be taken down so that no one else can see it, and they also want the bully to be blocked. Then they also want someone to talk to."
This isn't really the social network's responsibility, and this is a fact which Richard admits. After all, the CyberMentors and Facebook have completely different areas of expertise. "They're not experts in child protection, but they are experts in communication and we're experts in child protection. So they need to work more closely with us."
In a lot of cases, groups like Beatbullying are dealing with the aftermath of victims' unpleasant experiences on a profiting organisation's site. "The websites themselves aren't taking responsibility for incidents arising from their service - so they could do more, absolutely."
Will it ever be stopped?
From the time they utter their first sentences, most children learn about naughty and nice behaviour - and it's sometimes enough to keep them out of trouble. But there will always be some youngsters who choose to behave in a way that's deliberately hurtful to others.
This is why bullying has survived for generations, and it's hard to imagine it ever changing. So, until we find a way of actually altering the vicious actions of a minority, it seems sensible to accept the facts. If we can'tprevent bullying, we should take steps to minimise its damage.
For more information or advice, visit the Beatbullying website.