Once merely frowned upon, spouting vitriol on the internet could soon land you in jail. Cassandra Mason investigates our growing cyberbullying problem and what is being done to fight it.

The recent death of long-time cybertroll victim Charlotte Dawson has sparked vigorous moral debate about the evils of the internet.

Some are calling for an end to anonymity in cyberspace, while others want to see offenders in court.

If made law, legislation now before Parliament would make it a crime to attack others online.


The link between online bullying and suicide - especially among young people - has come into the spotlight, aided by the popularity of films like 2012 US documentary Bully.

Stories like that of Canadian teenager Rehtaeh Parsons are also helping to bring the problem into the mainstream.

The 17-year-old Nova Scotia teenager took her own life in April last year following months of online harassment.

The attacks were launched when photos of Miss Parsons allegedly being gang raped at a party more than a year earlier circulated online.

There is evidence of similarly cruel acts here in New Zealand, a country with shocking youth suicide rates and high levels of online bullying.

But the New Zealand Government is leading the way with proposed legislation to criminalise such behaviour.

The proposed law

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill, introduced by Justice Minister Judith Collins, would make it easier for authorities to deal with cyberbullies.


The legislation would make it an offence to send or post harmful messages - punishable by a $2000 fine or three months' jail - and create a specialised enforcement agency to deal with cyberbullying complaints.

Inciting someone to commit suicide over the internet would be illegal.

Mrs Collins said last week the legislation was world-leading.

"What I'm hearing from my ministerial counterparts in Australia and the UK, for instance, is that their nations are also grappling with the challenges presented by increased communications within the cybersphere," she said.

"I'm proud New Zealand is leading the world with our response to this global problem and nations around the world will be following New Zealand's Harmful Digital Communications Bill with interest."

The bill had its first reading in November, and the justice and electoral select committee is set to report back on June 3.


Across the ditch, friends of Charlotte Dawson have launched an online petition calling for the creation of similar legislation.

The "Charlotte's Law" petition calls on the Australian federal and state Governments to take a tougher stance on cyberbullying and for greater accountability from social media companies.

Dawson, 47, was outspoken about her depression and in 2012 publicly waged war on Twitter "trolls" - a move that prompted considerable backlash.

The star was found dead in her Sydney apartment on February 22.

New laws timely

NetSafe executive director Martin Cocker says online bullying is getting worse.


"People are seeing that you can sustain an online attack against somebody without a response. There's no clear action taken against [cybertrolls], so it's encouraging them to see that as the vector to release their frustrations."

NetSafe receives about 60 bullying-related complaints a week, even though it deals only with complex cases - usually of a legal or technical nature.

"The things that flow through to us are where the level of harm is particularly high, and people are particularly concerned. Or they're complex and there's no resolution in sight."

But cyberbullying helplines receive a "huge" volume of calls, he says.

NetSafe, which has been "instrumental" in drafting the cyberbullying bill, says the proposed changes are the "best response" anyone has come up with yet.

"Society needs to respond to the challenge the information age is raising.


"[The bill] creates a system which defines what is and what isn't okay and it gives people a legal process that anybody can access."

While there are concerns the law will only be able to deal with attacks perpetrated within New Zealand, nearly all cases are local, Mr Cocker says.

"It is true that someone could undertake a cyber attack from another country, but ... most bullying and harassment happens between people who know each other."

"Trolls" not so cruel in real life

New research from Victoria University shows internet "trolls" aren't nearly as prepared to lash out in real life.

The study asked 18-20-year-olds what they found acceptable and unacceptable on social media.


Most responded that they believed people behaved differently online, the main reason being attackers couldn't witness the hurt on their victims' faces first hand.

The faceless nature of hiding behind a computer screen meant immediate consequences weren't such a concern.

Dr Val Hooper, who guided the research, said: "If you post something hurtful you don't see the hurt in the recipient's eyes.

"You also have time to think about how to word your post to have the most powerful impact."

Dr Hooper worries that abhorrent behaviour online could spill into day-to-day interactions, given the lack of guidelines.

What's done can't be undone


Last week social services researcher Steve Taylor told Newstalk ZB platform providers needed to make it more difficult for bullies to comment anonymously.

But Mr Cocker says targeting the anonymity of cyberspace instead of the bullies themselves would be "impossible".

"There are certain things which the internet has created that, if you could undo you could make a safer environment, but you can't undo them."

People will always have the ability to be anonymous, he says, and it's about creating a framework that works around that.

"[The bill] doesn't pretend it can do things that it can't."

Companies like Facebook and Twitter already spend an inordinate amount of time going through complaints - many of which are "rubbish" - so responsibility can't fall solely on them to police the problem.


Last year, Facebook ramped up its efforts to tackle bullying, making it easier for young people to contact an adult on the site when they felt bullied.

"We are committed to decreasing suicide globally by connecting people in need with the resources and people who can help them best," a Facebook NZ spokeswoman says.

These include enabling users to report abuse, and offering them suicide prevention resources when they do.

Facebook NZ says it is engaging actively with the Government on The Harmful Digital Communications Bill.

People are the problem

Chief executive of Australian mental health organisation "Beyondblue" Kate Carnell said cyberbullying was a major source of depression.


"Unfortunately, in some cases, it can lead to suicide so this is a very real problem."

The dilemma with social media was that it was "24 hours a day".

"You can't get away from it. Bullying in the school yard, you can go home from school ... [but] lots of people communicate through social media so it's very hard to turn it off."

However, Mental Health Foundation NZ chief executive Judi Clements says social media is not the problem.

"We, the people, are the problem. We're the people who say things that shouldn't be said. It's a bit like saying telephones are the problem."

Labelling the abusers "trolls" only fuels the fire.


"These are people. We shouldn't give it life by giving it a name like trolls. It feeds the problem [and] if we want to make something good come out of this, we've got to starve it."

People targeted should share their stories to let others know they're not alone, she says.

And as hard as it is, if victims know abuse is happening, just "don't look", she says.

"Focus on the people that you know, the people that you trust, the people who you can talk to. The people you respect and value, the people who love you."

What can you do?

If a child tells you they've been cyberbullied reassure them that they've done the right thing to trust you.


If the bullying involves physical threats, contact the police.

Save evidence of all bullying messages and images. This may be used later if you report the bullying to school or the police.

Bring in any evidence you have when you meet the police.

Reassure your child that you will not remove their technology as a knee-jerk reaction.

Fear of losing access to computers and mobile phones is often why young people don't tell adults.

Where to get help
Lifeline: 0800 543 543
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865
Youth Services: (06) 355 5906
Youthline: 0800 376 633
Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (4pm - 6pm weekdays)
Whatsup: 0800 111 757 (24 hours)
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155