The suicide of a 14-year-old girl in southern Victoria last week has pushed the issue of cyber bullying into the spotlight.
The child’s mother has blamed the suicide on the Internet. The case, the fourth suicide in six months among students from the same school, has highlighted the severe impact of cyber bullying on young people.
"I laid in bed with her in my bed and we discussed [an unwanted Internet message] for about an hour and she left me fairly happy,” the child’s mother, Karen Rae, told Melbourne radio station 3AW. “I can guarantee you if she didn't go on the Internet Friday night she'd be alive today."
Not-for-profit organisation Beyond Blue’s clinical advisor, Dr Michael Baigent, says that until recently adults and children hadn't taken the threat of cyber bullying seriously.
“I think the effects have mostly been noticed by children and a small group of parents of the children most affected by it, and until now it hasn’t really been an issue that’s been in the forefront of people’s attention.”
Bullying is a significant factor in mental health problems for children and adolescents. Mobile phones, instant messaging software, chat rooms and social-networking sites can all be used for bullying.
Not only is the Internet making it easier for bullying to occur, Baigent said, but the ability to reach a mass audience online is making the impact worse.
“One of the things that is particularly heinous about [the Internet] is it has the ability to involve such a large number of people very quickly,” Baigent said. “Cyber bullying is a very powerful single action.”
Queensland University of Technology cyber bullying expert, Dr Marilyn Campbell, says bullying is deeply embedded in our society and that the transition between the playground and technology use is seamless. According to Campbell, young people don’t make a distinction between their online social life and offline social life.
“We have a bullying culture which kids learn and they grow up with technology as a social medium, not just the communications that adults use it for,” Campbell said. “Even though there are good things about that, such as connecting with people, there’s also a dark side.”
Once accused of trying to sex-up bullying by throwing the term "cyber" in front of it, Campbell said the issue is still not taken as seriously as it should be. She argues that there is a "digital divide" between children and adults, but hopes that "when this generation starts parenting, then we won’t have so much of the digital divide and people will be smarter with their kids.”
This month, the Australian Communications and Media Authority launched a new Cybersmart Web site that offers resources for teachers, parents and students to address cyber safety issues.
However, Campbell said ACMA's site, aimed at “empowering Australian children to be smart online”, does not effectively address the issue of cyber bullying and that researchers were too slow to realise its consequences.
“Unfortunately the [government’s] solutions to cyber bullying are these incredibly simplistic technological solutions,” Campbell said.
“I’d like more research and more concentration on assisting bullies to change their behaviour rather than supporting victims.”
Cyber bullying victims seeking help and support should contact:
Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800