January 4, 2012

With increasing new communication technologies being made available to children and young people, there will always be a potential for them becoming a victim to online bullying. Online bullying, e-bullying or cyberbullying, is defined as follows: ‘the use of information and communication technologies such as email, [mobile] phone and text messages, instant messaging, defamatory personal websites and defamatory personal polling websites, to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behaviour by an individual or a group, that is intended to harm others.’

Children and young people are keen adopters of new technologies, but this can also leave them open to the threat of online bullying. An awareness of the issues and knowledge of methods for dealing with online bullying can help reduce the risks. The issue of cyberbulling must be specifically addressed within a school/academy’s anti-bullying policy.

 Text Messaging

Bullying by text message has become an unfortunate and unpleasant by-product of the convenience that SMS (short message service) offers. Children should be advised to be careful about giving out their mobile phone number, and ask that those that have their number never pass it on. If only known and trusted friends know the number, it is less likely to be abused in this way. If being bullied by text message, children should immediately seek help from a teacher, parent or carer. They should not respond to the messages, but should keep a detailed diary recording information such as the content of the message, the date, the time, the caller ID or whether the number was withheld or not available. If space permits, the messages should also be stored on the phone in case they are needed later as evidence. Abuse in the form of bullying should be reported to the mobile phone company who can take certain steps to try to resolve the situation, and in some instances it may also be necessary to involve the police. In some cases it may be necessary, or easier, to change the mobile phone number or to purchase a new phone.

Like bullying by text message, email provides a reasonably ‘anonymous’ method of communication which bullies have seized upon to harass their victims. If being bullied by email, children should not respond to the messages, but should seek help from a teacher, parent or carer. Likewise if they receive an email message from an unknown sender, they should exercise caution over opening it, or ask an adult for assistance. Don’t delete the message but keep it as evidence of bullying. If the email is being sent from a personal email account, abuse should be reported to the sender’s email service provider. Many email programs also provide facilities to block email from certain senders. If the bullying emails continue, and the email address of the sender is not obvious, then it may be possible to track the address using special software. Email service providers may be able to offer assistance in doing this. In certain cases, it may be easier to change the email address, and exercise caution over who this new address is given to.

Instant Messaging and Chat Rooms

Aside from the general risks of using chat rooms and instant messaging (IM) services, these services are also used by bullies. Children should be encouraged to always use moderated chat rooms, and to never give out personal information while chatting. If bullying does occur, they should not respond to messages, but should leave the chat room, and seek advice from a teacher, parent or carer. If using a moderated chat room, the system moderators should also be informed, giving as much detail as possible, so that they can take appropriate action.

Instant Messaging (IM) is a form of online chat but is private between two, or more, people. If a child is bullied or harassed by IM, the service provider should be informed giving the nickname or ID, date, time and details of the problem. The service provider will then take appropriate action which could involve a warning or disconnection from the IM service. If a child has experienced bullying in this way, it might also be worth re-registering for instant messaging with a new user ID.


Although less common, bullying via websites is now becoming an issue. Such bullying generally takes the form of websites that mock, torment, harass or are otherwise offensive, often aimed at an individual or group of people. If a child discovers a bullying website referring to them, they should immediate seek help from a teacher, parent or carer. Pages should be copied and printed from the website concerned for evidence, and the internet service provider (ISP) responsible for hosting the site should be contacted immediately. The ISP can take steps to find out who posted the site, and request that it is removed. Many ISPs will outline their procedures for dealing with reported abuse in an acceptable use policy (AUP) which can be found on their website. Additionally, many websites and forum services now provide facilities for visitors to create online votes and polls, which have been used by bullies to humiliate and embarrass their fellow pupils. Again, any misuse of such services should be reported to a teacher, parent or carer who should then take steps to contact the hosting website and request the removal of the poll.

Specific issues regarding online bullying should be dealt with by the school or academy under its existing anti-bullying policies.

Badlapur and the Bombay Teen Challenge

January 13, 2011

Mr Devaraj is a man with a vision and a mission. Mumbai has a red light district that is like something from a horror movie. Except worse. Girls as young as 10 and 11 are kidnapped from villages in northern India or Nepal and brought to Mumbai as sex slaves. They are kept in cages for 3 years where they are systematically and repeatedly tortured and raped. At the end of this time they are conditioned into sex slavery and have nowhere else to go. Many of these girls have HIV/Aids and children of their own who often contract the disease from their mothers.The orphans at Badlapur

For many years Mr Devaraj has been rescuing children and women from their slavery and taken them to the communities that he has built in Badlapur where they are cared for, nursed back to health and educated and trained to live normal lives. Today, I had the privilege of visiting these communities.

Mr Devaraj graciously picked me up from hotel and we drove the 2 hours through the picturesque mountains to the east of Mumbai to the first of these communities. I was greeted with many smiles and hugs and presented with a bunch of flowers after which the children sang to me whilst I drank delicious Indian tea spiced with ginger. I spent several hours with the children answering questions, looking at their art work and talking with them. The light and the happiness in their eyes are extraordinary. Just being with them is inspirational. They like jokes, and we spent time telling each other riddles. Their houses are simple but beautiful communities, spotlessly clean and maintained by the children themselves. Children as young as 3 years of age have responsibility for helping with the cleaning, the cooking and looking after one another. The highlight of the children’s week is when they can go on the computer for one hour and the older girls maintain friendships through Facebook. Do you know what Indian and Facebook have in common? Along with China, they make up the three largest communities in the world. It really struck home how ubiquitous social networking is around the world. There is a great educational programme for the young people, with individualised instruction for each child which guarantees that each child will be at an age-appropriate educational level within a year. It is truly not just an educational triumph but a triumph of humanity.

I also visited the orphanages. Often, when a sex slave dies of HIV/Aids, her children are dumped on the street. Two such children were Rhaji and Shaneer. Shaneer was three years old when her mother died and she and her one year old brother were left in the gutter. Shaneer used to make up songs for Rhaji. “Little brother, don’t cry. I will beg for food for you and I will look after you that you grow up to be a strong man”. This is how Mr Devaraj found them on the streets. A dying one-year old child with his three- year old big sister looking after him. The photographs Mr Deveraj showed me pictured two children on the brink of death. That picture was taken nine years ago. Today I met them. Shaneer is a charming and graceful girl of 12 and Rhaji is an energetic young 10 year old. They are still inseparable and happy beyond belief. The joy and the energy of all the children in the orphanage is contagious and through a mist of tears I could not help smiling. Joy like that is very infectious. I have also never been hugged by so many children in my whole life.

After eating a delicious lunch with them (Indians really know about good food, even the little ones), I reluctantly left the orphanage. Our next stop was the community for the women themselves, those who had been rescued from sex slavery. Many had HIV/Aids and today was a sad day as after a long battle, Nimi succumbed to her illness and died peacefully of pneumonia, a common complication with HIV/Aids. Although I was an outsider I was not treated as such and shared in their grief as Mr.Devaraj told them the news. They sang prayers softly amidst the silent weeping and the harsh reality of the environment from which these women were rescued really came home in a forceful way. I also visited the vocational workshop where a top Mumbai fashion designer had left her prestigious job in the city and come to Badlapur to teach the women how to make beautiful clothes and jewellery. I was presented with lovely silk trousers, handbags and earrings for my wife.

Mr Devaraj also runs a community for men who are recovered drug addicts and the educational, health and social programme that is run out of this remote, rural town community would match any major city drug rehabilitation programme for excellence of outcomes. The programme has a 98% success rate and I spent time talking with Bhandri, himself a recovered drug addict who was brought into the community 16 years as a rescued child and now heads up the programme.

It is hard to do justice to the impact and importance of this wonderful and effective humanitarian project and I do not have the skill with words or pictures to do it justice. I urge anyone who is reading this to go to to read the real story for yourself and please make a donation. This programme saves lives and is making a real difference to Mumbai sex slaves, their children and their orphans. I am pleased to wholeheartedly commend this project to everyone. Oh, and watch Slumdog Millionaire again. An insightful and beautiful film.

Is ICT a myth?

September 2, 2010

Whilst watching  a TED broadcast by Ken Robinson the other day, I noticed his remark that 15 year olds do not wear wristwatches because they do not see the point in using single-function technology. Several years ago, I asked a group of year 9 students if they used e-mail to which one replied, “no but my granny does”. To a large extent, ICT is a mythical construct perpetuated by people from my own demographic (middle-aged, male, overweight and geeky). This of course is to grossly over-generalise and I am being deliberately mischevious in doing so although some of the more interesting observations in recent years have come from a less stereotypical position. Turkle, Byron, Livingstone, Marsh, Davies, boyd et al have focussed more on the social, cognitive and constructivist aspects of the digital landscape and seem less obsessed with the artifacts of digital culture. Read Turkle’s “Evocative Objects” for a particularly beautiful depiction.

In a time when we are still obsessing over large, meta-technical “solutions” (heaven help us), young people are doing interesting things with that which is personal, portable, wireless, networked and social. Yesterday I talked with someone whose developmentally delayed son was doing astonishing things using adaptive communication apps on an i-thing. Talk to any child about ICT and they may look at you blankly. The modernistic labels of information, communications and technology suit the language of education systems very well (and remember, school itself has been described as a technology) but really. Do we honestly think that these structures truly reflect what (we may kid ourselves) is educationally and technologically cutting-edge. Becta has gone. Children are deserting ICT as a subject in droves. Despite the third paranthetical attribute with which I described myself in the first paragraph, I am reminded of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”; something is happening but you don’t know what it is…...

Vision Magazine

February 5, 2010

Checkout the latest free issue of Futurelab’s VISION magazine includes articles on assistive technologies, curriculum innovation, 3D printers, eco-friendly schools and digital media in the classroom. Subscribe now or download the magazine as a pdf. Find it at

Brain Activity and Behaviour

November 16, 2009

This essay uses examples to examine how studies of people with brain damage or who suffer disruption to brain activity have provided evidence about the relationship between brain activity and behaviour in normal functioning. 

 There are several ways in which abnormal behaviour may be associated with a damaged or malfunctioning brain. These in turn may be used to describe the relationship between a normal brain and behaviour. Biological psychology argues that all elements of our individual psychological existence, including desires, moods, emotional responses, are biologically based upon neuronal activity within the brain. Emotions, for example are altered by neuronal system changes. Synaptic activity can change the neural system resulting in behavioural, cognitive and emotional changes under certain conditions. Amongst others, there are three specific examples that are of interest:

  (a) Neurological diseases often cause a disruption to the transmission of certain chemicals, sometimes resulting in the failure to manufacture a required neurotransmitter.  Parkinson’s disease, for example is associated loss of conscious control over motor functions. This is because of the deterioration or destruction of  neurons dependent upon dopamine.

 (b) Illnesses associated with neuroses and depression are sometimes treated with prescription drugs. These target specific synapses, which cause a change in certain areas of the brain, thereby altering  the brain’s processing of information. For example, the part of the brain that generates anxiety in a person, may show inhibited activity through the effects of the chemical.

 (c) So-called recreational drugs that may stimulate, depress or otherwise alter the neuronal system act by changing activity in the central nervous system. Synaptic changes affect information processing and consequently may affect behavioural, cognitive and emotional responses.

 These examples illustrate the chemical intervention of neurotransmitters and synapses that may result in changes to behaviour. A synapse is a component of the nervous system where an electro-chemical signal passes from one nerve cell to another. People who suffer with schizophrenia often are diagnosed with a pathology associated with the behaviour of certain neurotransmitters in specific parts of the brain. When these neurotransmitters are monitored in people with schizophrenia, there is often over-activity recorded. This is also evidenced by the person being drawn to stimuli that would otherwise not receive attention. This is sometimes treated with chemicals that counteract this effect by reducing the brain’s overactivity in these areas.

The above examples demonstrate the link between what is observed in a malfunctioning brain and  normal brain behaviour. In these specific cases it may be reasonable to make some cautious generalisations about normal electro-chemical brain behaviour from what is observed from a damaged brain. Knowledge gained from studying the behaviour associated with damaged or malfunctioning brains may help understanding of how behaviour is controlled by the complex intertwining of variables. The relationship between brain activity and observed behaviour are examples of this. Brain trauma caused by accident or invasive surgery may also have an impact on human behaviour. Surgery for brain cancer offers the opportunity to observe patient behaviour before and after the procedure.

 Sperry pioneered a surgical technique for the treatment of  epilepsy (Sperry,1969). Epilepsy is caused by  regionalised, chaotic, electrical brain activity.  The division of the brain into hemispheres separated by the corpus callosum provides the opportunity to compare right and left hemisphere activity. The corpus callosum integrates the activity of both hemispheres. Epilepsy in one hemisphere therefore tends to influence electrical activity in the other. Sperry showed that by severing the corpus callosum, epilepsy could be greatly reduced without negatively impairing the patient. Sperry also found that through training, specific learning could take place in one hemisphere with different learning taking place in the other.

 The relationship between brain and behaviour can also be shown through the study of damage to the brain caused by other types of trauma, or cancer. Observing damage caused by strokes, which results in a loss of  oxygen and nutrients to a part of the brain can also help the understanding of the brain and behaviour. Lesions caused by the destruction of neurons may cause behavioural changes which indicate changes in behaviour. This may help the understanding of how specific brain areas contribute to normal functioning.

 The well-documented case of  Phineas Gage ( Miell, Phoenix and Thomas p. 268) illustrates how partial brain damage may result in behavioural changes. Gage received a traumatic brain injury which he survived, but which resulted in extreme, aberrant behavioural changes. His ambulatory and motor functioning was however unimpaired. Through this and through subsequent research, it has been found that in the case of brain damage  the workings of the remainder of the brain is revealed by the damage caused, and not the functioning of the damaged part itself.

 Finally, clinical depression may illustrate development of the thinking in this area further. There is an argument that genetic predisposition may result in an individual’s susceptibility to develop depression. This is not to imply the inevitability that someone will suffer clinical depression. Early and later environmental factors may mitigate this. It may also be that someone with no genetic evidence to indicate a tendency towards depression might become depressed in extreme circumstances (Anisman and Zacharko, 1982).

 It may be that certain genes influence depression and this may be evidenced in the nervous system.The effectiveness of drug-based therapy in some cases indicates the involvement of certain neurotransmitters in depression. It may be therefore suggested that there are anomalies in neurotransmission within certain neural systems. It might be inferred that certain genes might give an individual a tendency towards an abnormality in the density of neural receptors at a particular type of synapse.

 It cannot, however be clearly argued that depression has a solely biological or social basis. Both elements  have both subtle and profound effects on behaviour.  Synaptic changes influence behaviour. Conversely, the environment can be seen to have an impact on the nervous system. Depression, as an illness can therefore be seen to have  both biological and social influences.


Anisman, H.  and Zacharko,  R.M.(1982) ‘Depression: the predisposing influence of stress’, The Behavioural and Brain Sciences, vol. 5, pp. 89-137 

Miell, D., Phoenix, A and Thomas K., (2002) Mapping Psychology, Open University, Milton Keynes.

Sperry, R. W. (1969) ‘Hemisphere deconnection and unity in conscious awareness’, American Psychologist, vol. 23, pp. 723-33

Social Constructivist Theory, ICT and the identity of people with disabilities.

November 10, 2009

I was attracted towards social constructivist theory because of its theoretical resonance with identity and disability, and also because of my own values and beliefs which are closely aligned with it. Social constructivist approaches are concerned with language and discourse. Unlike other theories, such as psychosocial theory or Social Identity Theory, there is no one original theorist behind social constructionist ideas. This observation is consistent with the theory itself, which proposes that all ideas are socially constructed. In fact, it can be argued that all knowledge is constructed through social interaction including language and our use of it. It becomes axiomatic therefore that the engagement of society with groups of people such as those with disabilities (assuming, probably erroneously, for the moment that this is a definable and homogeneous group) is socially constructed rather than being ‘natural’ (however that may be defined). Social constructionist theories share some common assumptions with the theories of postmodernism (including the ideas of Foucault) that the same events, interactions or states of being may be subject to different ontological interpretations. Social constructionists Potter and Wetherell (1987) discuss the power relationships that exist between people or groups of people and again this has a resonance with the power/knowledge constructs of Foucault (Foucault, 1965). Social construction theory makes no claim that identities are predisposed, inevitable or are gradually emergent in response to predefined variables. Rather it claims that identities are fluid, mutable constructs that are perpetually emergent and are formed through social interaction and relationships. Social constructionist Gergen (1999) illustrates the construction of his identity through anecdotes that are drawn from social relationships. His examples, which are illustrated from various phases of his life also illuminate the cultural and historical context in which identities are (or become) constructed. There are several key ways in which social constructivist theories help to explain the identities of people with disabilities. Mackelprang and Salsgiver argue that “Unfortunately, persons with disabilities are also susceptible to internalising stereotypes and negative beliefs” (Mackelprang and Salsgiver, p. 9). Especially in the case of an acquired disability or the movement of a person with disabilities from one social context to another we can see that identities are changeable and therefore are always provisional, evolving and mutating. Both internal and external stereotyping will inevitably change the (internally and externally) perceived identity/identities of the person. In this way it may be claimed that the distinction between internal or personal identity and external or social identity is erroneous and that all identities are social. This clearly shows the major difference between social constructionist theory and other theories such as psychosocial theory or Social Identity Theory. This could be seen as a limitation of the social constructionist theory, as one interpretation may be that this disempowers the person with the disability, not enabling them to change their identity except within a social context and implicitly with the consensus of society. Conversely however, it can be alternatively seen to be an empowering theory as it firmly locates identities as resources with which to negotiate social and practical interactions. Social constructionist theory can therefore be seen to make a potentially positive contribution to the explanation of the identity of those people with disabilities. Shakespeare speaks of how “Disability identity is about stories, having the space to tell them, and an audience which will listen. It is also about recognising differences, and isolating the significant attributes and experiences which constitute disability.” This builds clearly upon Gergen’s ideas and places language firmly at the centre of socially constructed identity. The term ‘disability’ is itself something defined by language and is therefore a social construct encompassing many physical, emotional, mental and psychological attributes (as if these could all be usefully grouped as if they were one phenomenon). The term itself is so obviously socially constructed that there is almost no avoiding the social constructionist theory in understanding disability and identity. Linton acknowledges this by pointing out that “Whilst retaining the term disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the literature in disability studies is best understood as a marker of identity” (Linton, 1999,p. 12). Social constructionist theorists recognise that there may be (and indeed probably inevitably are) differences in the identity of those people who belong to the same groups (as if any category or sub-category of ‘disability’ can be usefully described as a group). As Miell, Phoenix and Thomas state, theories are only useful when applied in a practical context (Miell, Phoenix and Thomas, p. 82). Although all the identity theories considered so far regard the embodiment of identities as crucial, social constructionist theory is particularly concerned with the building and negotiation of individual identity constructs. This is important in the context of disability where authors such as Swan (Swan, p. 84) dispute through example the existence of either a ‘disabled identity’ or a shared identity amongst people with particular forms of disability. As social constructionist theories allow for changes to and multiple incarnations of identity, they provide a potentially useful framework for those campaigning for change in social views of impairment or disability. However, one example where social constructionist theory may lay itself open to criticism is in the area of mental health, where acceptance of multiple identities in some people may be perceived as mental illness. One of the attractions of online worlds such as Second Life is that they provide alternative or supplementary spaces for people to explore and create identities. For people with an ambulatory disability for instance, the opportunity to travel virtually may provide additional affordances in term of socialisation,education, creativity and self-expression.

Reference List Foucault, M (1965). Madness and civilization: a history of insanity in the Age of Reason. New York, Vintage.

Gergen, K. (1999) An Invitation to Social Construction, London, Sage.

Linton, S (1999). Claiming Disability; knowledge and identity. New York, New York University Press.

Mackelprang, RW and Salsgiver, RO (1998). Disability: A Diversity Model Approach in Human Service Practice.Washington, Lyceum.

Miell, D, Phoenix, A and Thomas, T (2006) Mapping Psychology. Milton Keynes, Open University.

Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987) Discourse and Social Psychology, London, Sage. Shakespeare, T. (1996) Disability, Identity and Difference in ‘Exploring the Divide’, edited by Colin Barnes and Geof Mercer. Leeds, The Disability Press, pp. 94-113.

Swan, J. (1981) Statement in Exley, H. (ed.) What It’s Like To Be Me, Watford, Exley Publications.

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