Lynley Bilby is a reporter for the Herald on Sunday.

Cyberbullying: Young Kiwis face serious mental-health risks

• An alarming rise in cyberbullying threatens the mental health of a generation of young New Zealanders.
• New research points to low self-esteem and depression, and has uncovered increasingly younger victims.
• A special series starting today explores the impacts of social media, shows parents how they can help their children and looks at how laws can be strengthened.

A generation of young New Zealanders faces serious mental-health risks from an alarming rise in cyberbullying.

The warning comes from academics, educationalists and the Justice Minister.

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The unchecked use of digital media has been linked to a rise in depression, high levels of anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Though research is just starting to emerge, studies show correlations between cyberbullying, low self-esteem and depression.

"They're the neglected generation I would say," said Victoria University professor Vanessa Green.

"We just got caught up in the importance of improving the technology for the sake of making it faster and better and quicker and everything else that it can do and I think we just missed the boat on the social side. Completely."

Today the Herald begins a week-long series on the impact of cyberbullying, examining the extent of online harassment. Our reports cover:

• Shocking levels of secrecy online and new apps that have worried experts.

• The increasingly younger age of victims and their bullies.

• Interviews with a cyberbully and victims.

• Tips for parents and victims.

• What makes a cyberbully and which victims they target.

• How the new law designed to combat cyberbullying is working.

• What schools are doing.

• Solutions.

Justice Minister Amy Adams, who has just overseen the introduction of a tough new law to stamp out cyberbullying, said it was critical to highlight the severity of the issue as it was more damaging and extensive than what was widely understood.

"As a mother I'm really anxious that young people particularly don't understand the viral nature, the permanence, the speed of dissemination and the damage of online communication and I worry deeply about how it will affect people not only now but [in] their future careers and life."

She said the digital footprint was a lasting impression and many people did not understand the long-term impact of putting trolling and potentially criminal posts online.

"It just amazes me what people think is okay to put out on social media or through internet communications," she said.

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"I think the way some people behave is utterly appalling. It is absolutely without justification, it is shameful and abhorrent and it's almost that cloak of perceived anonymity that allows people to say things online that they really wouldn't in a normal environment."

When we bring parents in ... they are completely oblivious to what their children are doing online.
Patrick Walsh, Online Advisory Group

She said the comprehensive system being established under the Harmful Digital Communication Act would provide the necessary education and awareness campaign to try to prevent the behaviour happening in the first place.

Multi-agency Online Advisory Group spokesman Patrick Walsh said the evidence suggested cyberbullying had increased. Schools received complaints around student cyberbullying, sextortion and sexting despite new attempts to counter the problem.

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"The missing link in all of this when we bring parents in is they are completely oblivious to what their children are doing online and some are very shocked when we show them the images and things on their own child's Facebook page."

New Zealand Intermediate and Middle School president Doug McLean said parents needed to keep pace with technology.

"In our day parents made sure that we didn't read inappropriate stuff and didn't get into inappropriate stuff but because parents don't have the confidence with the technology, kids are getting into it.

"Parents should be aware of what their kids are getting in to. And that's where the gap is - a lack of confidence and knowledge with that technology." Help agency Lifeline chief executive Jo Denvir described cyberbullying as "the scourge of our time".

"It's toxic and we need to change the culture. We should all be ashamed," she said.

Dr Green said gauging the true extent of the problem was difficult due to reluctance by young people to confess to it.

Many feared their phones would be confiscated if they admitted they were being bullied.

A 2015 survey by student anti-bullying organisation Sticks and Stones showed almost half of young people being bullied did not share the problem with anyone.

"I think we've got a very challenging situation ... on our hands with regard to cyberbullying," she said.

She suspects it will be another generation before a new set of values can be learned to create a more civil cyber community.

Dr Green's vision for the future included introducing an anti-bullying programme at preschool level to tackle issues surrounding behaviour from day one.

These are some of the high-profile people behind our campaign. They have either been cyberbullied or have taken a stand against it.

Where to get help:

• In an emergency: call 111
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youthline: 0800 376 633, or text 234 (available 24/7) or talk@youthline.co.nz or live chat (between 7pm and 11pm) http://livechat.youthline.co.nz/mibew/chat?locale=en&style=youthline
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155 (weekdays 11am to 5pm)
• NetSafe: 0508 NETSAFE (0508 638 723), www.theorb.org.nz

How parents can stop cyberbullying:

• Understand where your kids are going online, what they are doing and who they are talking to.
• Spend time in your child's online world.
• Accept and acknowledge how important technology is to your child.
• Don't ask your child if they're being cyberbullied. Use their language - have they seen mean texts circulating, humiliating photos or messages on others' Facebook walls?
• Don't downplay covert bullying. Don't dismiss it saying "don't worry ... it doesn't matter if you've been left out" or "just ignore the bullying". This tells the child that you don't take their situation seriously and can even convey that it's normal for others to treat them this way.
• Make it clear cyberbullying will not result in phone or internet access being taken away. Discuss this with your child and reassure them that's not how you'll deal with it.
• Teach your kids how to be good cyber citizens before they are in Year 4, when they may begin to venture online.
• Much of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying is learned behaviour. Look at what behaviours you're modelling to your kids. Is sarcasm and point-scoring part of your family culture?
• Don't contact the other child but tell the school principal.

- NZ Herald

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