CHILDREN as young as nine were reported to police for offences relating to cyberbullying in south Worcestershire last year.
The number of victims aged under 18 has also more than doubled according to West Mercia Police figures – up from 71 reports in 2015 to 121 reports in 2016.
Child protection experts said many children can feel unable to escape the messages, while Worcester mum Lucy Alexander, whose son Felix killed himself last year aged just 17 after suffering cyberbullying, appealed for kindness in an open letter published in the Worcester News.
While there is no specific law that makes bullying over social media, messaging apps or text messages illegal there is legislation in place to stop harassing or threatening behaviour.
The figures, obtained from West Mercia Police under a Freedom of Information request, show of the number of under-18s either reporting or suspected of committing offences under the Malicious Communications Act or Harassment Act.
They reveal that more than twice as many girls than boys were reported for offences linked to cyberbullying with 86 females suspected of offending compared to 35 males.
They also show that, last year, two nine-year-old boys were investigated for harassment.
It was decided not to be in the public interest to take formal action against one of the boys while the other was deemed below the age of criminal responsibility.
Four under-18s were cautioned, 12 faced court summons and three had to complete a community resolution in 2016.
In the majority of cases, a suspect was named but the victim either did not support or had withdrawn support from police action.
Superintendent Kevin Purcell says police expect to see figures increase further as they encourage people to report incidents of cyberbullying.
"Bullying or harassment of any type is a horrible and isolating experience," he said.
"This has always been a fact and in today's world bullying can be far more than in person.
"When people are together due to technology, the issue becomes wider and potentially even more hurtful as often there is no way of escaping cyberbullying.
"We do significant work with schools and youth groups to discuss bullying and part of this is to encourage understanding of the issues and prevent people becoming victims and bullies.
"In terms of advice for parents and young people alike.
"Firstly, parents should prevent their children being on social media platforms without understanding the platform themselves and as importantly the age restrictions on such sites.
"In addition, if giving younger children access to social media, apps and the internet generally for the first time, protect them by making it a condition that you can review what they are doing and have passwords that allow you to view all of their activity.
"We do expect the instances of cyber bullying to increase, as we are encouraging cases that have and are causing concerns to be recognised by parents and schools.
"In the first instance these will often be best dealt with by the school and/or parents discussing with children their behaviour and the impact on others.
"On other cyberbullying that ranges from threats online to revenge pornography we will, as with all crimes, assess the extent of the crime and conduct a proportionate investigation.
"Finally I do not know many parents who would not protect their child from physical harm by ensuring they had boundaries - came in at a given time, knew who their friends were, who they were mixing with and prevent them from any contact with any adult they were not a relative, teacher, close family friend or similar.
"It cannot therefore be an excuse that "I don't understand technology" to put their child at risk by not understanding and discussing their cyber life with them."
An NSPCC spokesperson said: "Online bullying is one of the biggest child protections challenges of this generation.
"Last year counsellors from the NSPCC’s Childline service delivered 4,541 counselling sessions to children and young people about online bullying. We know from these conversations that bullying can have a damaging and long-term impact.
"Children as young as seven told counsellors they were being tormented and abused by malicious and hurtful messages from which they felt there was no escape."
Anyone being bullied can speak to a counsellor by contacting Childline for free, confidential support, 24 hours a day on 0800 1111 or at www.childline.org.uk.
Parents can contact the NSPCC’s online safety helpline run in collaboration with O2 for free, expert advice on 0808 8005002.
NSPCC online safety advice for parents:
• Online safety advisors in O2 shops have teamed with the NSPCC to offer parents tips on how to keep children safe online. Advisors can show parents how to set up parental controls on devices such as phones, tablets and PCs.
• Since August 2015, the NSPCC and O2 have been working together to help families enjoy life online by launching a range of free resources such as an Online Safety Helpline – Parents can call 0808 800 5002, free of charge, for advice on technical issues such as privacy settings on apps or personal matters such as online bullying;
• The NSPCC’s website, Net-Aware.org.uk, offers parents an overview of the most popular sites, games and apps used by young people;
NSPCC online safety advice for children:
• Tell someone – speak to a friend, parent/guardian. Even if they’re not ready to take it further they can offer children support.
• Tell a teacher – they have a duty to care for their pupils and will be able to tackle the problem.
• Block the bully – make sure they don’t have access to social media accounts and don’t reply to any abusive messages as this can make the situation worse.
• Build self-esteem – it is easy to start believing that the insults are true, even though they are not. Getting confidence back can help children deal with bullying.