Your phone lights up and your stomach twists. The small screen you used to love is lasering hate straight at you. Fake intimate images mock you. Spiteful words cut you. Threats are made. Disappearing direct messages, full of menace, pile in. With the added fuel of shares and likes, of trolling, fraping, catfishing and upskirting - yes, each torture has its own label - the bullies have got you just where they want you. They’re in your phone, in your pocket, in your head, and in our online world, there’s no escape.
We call all this brutal persecution cyber-bullying. We are wrong. It isn’t bullying, it’s full-on violence, and it’s experienced by around half of young people in the EU. A Swansea University study revealed that young victims of cyber-bullying are “more than twice as likely to self-harm and enact suicidal behaviour”, a clinical way of saying that cyber-violence causes young people who should be full of hope and happiness to cut themselves and kill themselves.
Nicole Fox from Dublin, affectionately known as ‘Coco’, was one of these young people, and her mother, Jackie, rose up on behalf of us all to campaign for the protection of our children and young people. The result, the Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Act 2020 was enacted in Ireland in February 2021.
Did we in the EU do enough to protect all our young people from cyber-violence?
Coco’s Law, as it is known, complements existing Irish legislation that prohibits the distribution of sexually explicit content involving individuals under 18 years of age. It creates new offences directly relevant to what young people are experiencing. It specifies hefty fines and considerable terms of imprisonment. But most of all, it shows that we, who have the power to help, understand what cyber-bullying feels like and will do all in our power to protect those in our care.
Since becoming law, the Irish police have initiated over 70 prosecutions related to intimate image abuse alone, and other EU countries have also been active. In 2017, the Italian Parliament approved legislation against cyber-bullying and last year, the French Parliament criminalised school and university bullying, including cyber-bullying, with offenders sanctioned with a fine of up to €150,000 and imprisonment for up to 10 years. But piecemeal sanctions are not enough. Without addressing cyber-bullying comprehensively across every EU Member State, our response looks feeble. The social media platforms across which bullying takes place are strong. Only a pan-EU response can demonstrate that the EU’s resolve is stronger.
Can we afford to wait? Ask Jackie Fox, who has lost her daughter. Ask any parents whose children have suffered torments. And next time you see a young person look at their phone and flinch, ask yourself ‘did we in the EU do enough to protect all our young people from cyber-violence?’. At the moment the answer is no. It doesn’t have to be. Beat the bullies. Let’s do it now.
Note to editors
The EPP Group is the largest political group in the European Parliament with 176 Members from all EU Member States