The principal of a top Auckland school has issued a firm warning to students about "vicious" online bullying, saying that they could be engaging in criminal behaviour.
A video message was sent to parents of Epsom Girls Grammar School students on Thursday. It featured a police officer who spelled out online bullying laws and the potential penalties for breaking them.
"I have seen content that can only be described as ugly and vicious," principal Lorraine Pound said in the message to parents.
"This sort of online behaviour needs to stop."
Asked to comment, Pound said the video was a general message which was not prompted by a specific incident or incidents at the secondary school. She declined to comment further.
It is understood to have come after recent events at the school which required the Ministry of Education to step in and provide support.
Pound said in the video that EGGS was taking online bullying seriously, and had sought advice from police and internet watchdog Netsafe because "too many people are not acting responsibly or appropriately online".
She emphasised the potential legal ramifications of cyberbullying, citing the Harmful Digital Communications Act.
"It is not harmless fun or justified self-expression to engage in activities online that go against the principles of this law," Pound said.
Students were warned that they could be tracked if they broke the law online. The school worked alongside Netsafe and police on social media sites such as including Instagram to trace the identity of any student who engaged in unacceptable online behaviour, Pound said.
Holly Stiles, a community liaison officer, said in the video that anyone aged 14 years or older was criminally liable for their behaviour and could be prosecuted. She outlined the principles of the Harmful Digital Communications Act, which included not harassing or threatening other people online.
"It is a sad place when we have to stand here and tell you not to do these things," Stiles said in the video. "But unfortunately, we do."
She added: "If you are engaging in any of this behaviour. Stop now. You have no idea what the other person is going through."
A police spokeswoman said a video was supplied to the school as part of routine police work on cyberbullying, and the video had also been supplied to other schools.
Reports by young people to New Zealand's internet watchdog Netsafe have risen 40 per cent in the past three years - though it is not known whether that reflects increased bullying or increased reporting of it. Reports related to "personal harm" rose by 85 per cent over this period, and among the most common complaints were "social aggression".
Ministry of Education Deputy Secretary Sector Enablement and Support Katrina Casey said schools were increasingly involved in incidents where student activity at home or in their own time had an impact on their school life.
"Schools have the power to act when it is reasonable to expect that what's occurred could have a negative impact on the school's learning environment," she said.
Online bullying involved similar behaviour to in-person bullying, but differed in that it could happen at any time - including in the home, Casey said.
The ministry funded Netsafe to provide support and advice to schools. It was up to schools how they restricted students' access to the internet.
In an email to parents on Thursday, Epsom Girls Grammar School said it blocked students' access to social media sites Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter and Netflix.
It allowed students to use other platforms, including Facebook, Skype, Pinterest and Whatsapp.
It also required students and parents to sign a Digital Citizenship Agreement, in which they agree to conditions about internet use.
Netsafe research has found that teenage girls are much more likely than boys to use instant messaging and photo sharing tools, which could make them more susceptible to cyberbullying.
International studies have also shown that young people who are vulnerable offline are generally more at risk online. This is particularly true in the case of bullying, harassment, and anxiety about self-esteem or body image.
Where to get help
To report online bullying call 0508 NETSAFE or text Netsafe to 4282 or go to report.netsafe.org.nz.
To talk with someone, call Youthline on 0800 37 66 33 or text 234 or call What's Up on 0800 942 8787.
If you're concerned about the immediate safety of you or someone else, call 111.