A 13-year-old Auckland girl has been hospitalised after an attempt to harm herself in what her family say was a reaction to vicious cyber bullying.
The teen was released yesterday in good health, but her mother says more needs to be done to ensure children are kept safe from the kind of hurtful messages she found on her daughter's phone.
Advocates backed that stance, saying now is the time for bystanders who witness such bullying to "take a stand" and encourage teens to confide in a trusted adult. The most serious cases, such as this one, are now able to be prosecuted under the Harmful Digital Communications Act which some hope will send a message to stubborn offenders.
"We need to shift to a culture of being kind to each other," said Netsafe's education specialist, Lee Chisholm. "It's not OK to tell people to harm themselves. In fact, it's now law that you can't. But online tools have created a disconnect between what we write and what happens at the other end."
Ms Chisholm said the worst thing to do was to "like" a harmful comment, or even to ignore it. The best action to take was to talk to the victim face-to-face and get them to speak with their parents or school or counsellor. Adults needed to support the child, and take care not to make the situation more difficult.
Patrick Walsh, from the Online Safety Advisory Group, said because teenagers were loath to dob in their peer group, parents needed to make sure they knew what children were doing online, and create an atmosphere of "no secrets".
Mr Walsh said what the bullies were doing was criminal. "That's why we supported the introduction of the new law. We've tried the carrot approach, but sometimes you need a stick," he said.
The child's mother said she only found out about the bullying, which began earlier this year, when she came home one day to find a truancy officer at the house. The girl had been wagging school after being picked on.
Her child had changed classes and was seeing the school counsellor, but the bullying had carried on. It was both verbal - at the school - and online, although the mother doesn't believe her child told anyone about the worst of the messages.
"I got her phone after she was in hospital and was reading everything. It was awful," she said. Many of the abusers had deleted their pages after the incident, she said.
At first, the mother said she didn't want anyone to know about the incident, but another family member had posted about it online and received huge support. "That showed it's not just us. I want to make it known that this is a problem."
The family had not yet decided what to do about the bullying, but didn't want further intervention to make the situation worse for the teen.
Exactly how a prosecution could work under the new act was yet to be decided, Mr Walsh said. Options included schools acting as the prosecutor - as in truancy cases - or a new system being created.
The school involved, which the Herald has decided not to name in the girl's interests, said it had followed its processes correctly. Senior Constable Garry Boles, the Counties Manukau police district prevention officer, said victims needed to be encouraged to come forward.
"Going to court would be pretty extreme, but depending on the bully's age they may have a youth aid file created and get a warning letter - and that might be enough to get them to stop," he said.
"That will show them it can go from cyber bullying in the bedroom where no one can see you, to police knocking at the front door."
Connecting with youth online
An Auckland couple who built a global $200 million travel booking business are now ploughing a slice of their earnings into a social media support project for depressed young people.
Jen and Mike Ballantyne, who founded Online Republic with Mike's late brother Paul Ballantyne, have become key funders of Live For Tomorrow, which has 13,000 followers on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Instagram.
"The overall aim and mission is to encourage young people to believe in the possibility of tomorrow," says Elliot Taylor, who manages the project through the youth agency Zeal.
"Research says that one in four young people are constantly online," he says. "And young people at risk of self-harm and suicide actually spend more time online than others."
Live For Tomorrow sends out a simple message of hope or inspiration to all its followers every day.
"Often it's a little line or a moment of encouragement, or to encourage them to keep pressing on, or to demystify something around mental health, or to affirm their tenacity to get through what they are struggling with," Mr Taylor says.
The project also has a 10-day photo challenge in which people post photos each day on a theme such as "your happy place" and "someone who inspires you". More than 1000 young people have entered this year's challenge which ends today, World Suicide Prevention Day, with a "hand-over-heart selfie".
The couple opened their home last night to musician Dave Dobbyn and 75 guests to raise support for the project.
- Simon Collins
Amended Crimes Act 1961
"A person commits an offence who incites, counsels, or procures another person to commit suicide, even if that other person does not commit or attempt to commit suicide in consequence of that conduct."
Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015
"A person commits an offence if the person posts a digital communication with the intention that it cause harm to a victim."
: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline
: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
(06) 3555 906
0800 376 633
0800 543 754 (4pm to 6pm weekdays)
0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
(09) 376 4155
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
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