An expert in anti-bullying research has told the Committee on Education that concerns about children being bullied online have increased considerably in the past months, due to the measures adopted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Today marks the first International Day Against Violence and Bullying in Schools, including cyberbullying.

The day is about is about raising awareness on the help that is available to target and deal with all forms of bullying in schools.

Dr Angela Mazzone, Psychologist and Postdoctoral Researcher in Anti-Bullying Studies, National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre, at DCU, told politicians that the negative effects of cyberbullying and other forms of online harassment can be devastating for children and young people.

A study carried out by the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre at DCU found that 28% of children have been the target of cyberbullying.

It found that half of the children sampled reported to have seen others being cyberbullied.

Dr Mazzone told the committee that research suggests that tackling bullying and cyberbullying should be a combined effort of students, parents and educators.

She said that the findings highlight the need for educational programmes aimed to increase children's digital skills.

Dr Mazzone also said that a national anti-bullying program including an online safety component should become a specific part of the national curriculum for primary and post-primary schools.

She said that additional funding should be provided for the establishment of a permanent observatory based at the National Anti-Bullying Research and Resource Centre to continually measure bullying and cyberbullying in Irish schools.

Dr Mazzone also said continuing professional development for teachers should have a strong focus on tackling bullying.

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Sinn Féin's Rose Conway Walsh said young peoples lives were being destroyed while bullying online is being analysed and she asked how everyone can work together to stop talking about the issue and do something about it. 

Ms Conway Walsh wanted to know how experts and politicians can better work together to make sure there are resources for continual evaluation around bullying. 

She said the students, teachers, bus drivers and everyone needed to be involved to tackle the issue. 

She said she was passionate about the problem because she said that too many lives have been destroyed because bullying behaviour is not being addressed. 

Responding, Dr Mazzone agreed and said a national anti bullying programme should be implemented. 

She said bullying is a complex phenomenon and happens when supervision is low so everyone has to be involved. 

Dr Mazzone said it was essential to raise awareness about the problem and she agreed that children need constant messages about the issue. 

Ms Conway Walsh asked if the country had failed as a state to tackle bullying in schools. 

Dr Seline Keating, Assistant Professor and Research Fellow in Anti-Bullying Studies, School of Human Development at DCU, said that we had not failed and in 2013 it was a positive step that every school had to have an anti-bullying policy. 

However, Ms Keating said talking is not enough and school staff and parents need to be actively involved and be trained to handle bullying. 

She said anti-bullying policies are not being evaluated annually as is recommended in the 2013 guidelines and she said that having an audit tool would make it feasible for all schools to check in on their anti-bullying policy. 

Fianna Fáil Senator Fiona O'Loughlin said that early intervention was important in relation to helping the victim and the bully. 

She said it was shocking to see that peer bullying was going on at pre-school. 

Ms O'Loughlin also said the practice of mindfulness could be a useful tool to tackle bullying. 

Dr Keating agreed that early intervention was critical. She said that each education sector needs to have a spiral approach so there is connections made between the three sectors of education. 

She said it was important to look at the bullying sector and the role of the bystander. 

She said that drama was a good tool to use in the classroom and to get children to develop empathy and walk in the shoes of people who might be experiencing bullying. 

Labour's Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked if it was difficult for schools to tackle bullying because he said the issue now follows children home on their smart phone and was not something that they could switch off. 

He also said some parents do not understand the nature of bullying and that there can be a "scrap" in the school yard which he said was not bullying. He pointed out that bullying was about power and is repeated actions over a period of time. 

Responding, Dr Keating said bullying can be "buzzword" and can be used incorrectly. She said schools need to have a clear definition of bullying which she said was really important. 

Dr Keating said students need to be aware about the difference of "having a laugh" and slagging and bullying.

She said that sometimes pupils are unaware that they are actually bullying. Dr Keating said the definition for bullying needs to be language friendly so students can understand it.