Cracking down on cyberbullying

Wed, 19th Apr 2017
PREVIEW

One in five children between the ages of five and 17 have experienced cyberbullying, with some being driven to suicide. My Weekly Preview speaks with the woman tasked with policing this insidious phenomenon to find out how we can protect ourselves and our children.  Words: Leigh Robshaw.

Miranda* is a sweet-faced 19-year-old from the Sunshine Coast who lived through relentless cyberbullying from the ages of 14 to 17, during her final years of high school. She is now trying to move on, though putting it behind her is difficult.

“They wrote horrible things and I’ve even had my pictures taken without my knowledge and posted,” Miranda says. “I was told I was an awful singer – I love singing and performing. I was told I was ugly. They said things about my health and mental health and said that I’m not worth anything.

“It made me really upset and I felt awful about myself. It caused a lot of anxiety and I was always afraid of what was going to pop up next. Suicide did cross my mind, but I would never have done anything – aside from my family, I don’t think anyone would have cared anyway.”

Miranda was bullied across three social media platforms and reported it, both to the platforms and to her school, but to no avail.

“When I reported it to the school they didn’t claim responsibility, because it happened outside of school hours, so nothing could be done. It felt unfair because I was told to get rid of my social media – but I saw that as a punishment. Why should I have to when I didn’t do anything wrong?”

Miranda says she’s in a much better place now she has left school, but adds: “I think it has made me hyper-paranoid because I’m always worrying what people are saying or doing behind my back.”

Miranda survived her years of torment but tragically, others haven’t. 

In July 2011, 14-year-old Caloundra teen Danii Sanders took her own life after being subjected to cyberbullying (her parents say she had mental health issues but that cyberbullying did not help). In 2012, TV personality Charlotte Dawson spoke of the sense of helplessness she felt as the target of ferocious online death threats, finally ending her own life in February 2014, aged 47. Then there’s the shocking story of 18-year-old American Brandy Vela, who in December last year, shot herself in front of her family after enduring years of cyberbullying. 

The reason cyberbullying is so destructive is that it is all-pervasive, with cyberbullies able to reach their victims electronically any time of the day or night. Cyberbullies repeatedly seek to embarrass, threaten, harass, stalk or intimidate their victims, and this can be a crime under either Queensland or national law.

“When people are anonymous and behind the keyboard they seem to take on a certain level of psycopathy that’s not there in normal life”

The Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner was launched in October 2015 to help young people have safe, positive experiences online. Its research shows one in five children between the ages of five and 17 have experienced cyberbullying in the past 12 months and one-third of the respondents who complain to the office have received direct threats of harm.  

Children’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant, who heads up a team of 50, says cyberbullying is often an extension of schoolyard bullying – and it’s getting worse.

“We’ve had about 400 cases in 20 months and the thing that’s important to note, it’s very hard to get kids to report anything – you don’t want to be a dobber,” she tells My Weekly Preview. “A lot of kids don’t report to the social media sites or their teachers let alone a government agency. The tone is escalating and for kids of that age, saying ‘I’m going to kill you’ or ‘I’m going to kill your family’ can be traumatic.”

The agency endeavours to resolve cyberbullying complaints for Australian children under the age of 18. However, there is now legislation before Parliament to extend the remit of the office to cover all Australians.

Cyberbullying has become such a ubiquitous part of modern society it has become the subject of a number of TV shows, including two Netflix series, the popular 13 Reasons Why and Audrie & Daisy. Back home, crime writer Tara Moss recently dissected the issue in her six-part ABC series Cyberhate (available to watch on iView). 

In the show, Moss undergoes an MRI scan on her brain while she reads violent messages projected onto a screen, including a rape threat she received on Twitter. Dr Sylvia Gustin monitors her vital signs. Moss’ heart rate increases from 70 to 100 beats per minute and the emotional areas of the brain light up in the same way they would had she been physically attacked. Gustin says as far as Moss’ brain was concerned, she was being assaulted and if this response is sustained over time, it can change the structure, function and biochemistry of the brain, resulting in depression and anxiety. 

The BBC labelled 2015 the ‘angriest year on the internet’ and online hostility shows no sign of abating. While cyberbullies and trolls continue to get their kicks – derived from the reaction they elicit from their victims – they will continue to attack. 

Conservative commentator Andrew Bolt is often criticised for his right-wing views and has been the subject of horrific cyberbullying. He makes an interesting point in Cyberhate: “The technology has a legitimising effect. The more clicks you get for being brutal, the more you’re affirmed.”

University of the Sunshine Coast psychologist Dr Rachael Sharman says trolls and cyberbullies are often people with an inferiority complex and low social skills.

“Their life is probably not going so well so they enjoy tearing some else down,” she says. “You know those sorts of people who like to make themselves feel better by making other people feel worse? That presumably is what they’re getting out of it. For some people, it is the reaction as well – they’re hoping to get a histrionic or over-the-top reaction from their target.” 

Sharman explains the ‘online disinhibition effect’ which insulates the abuser from immediate repercussions. 

“When people are anonymous behind the keyboard they seem to take on a certain level of psychopathy that’s not there in normal life. They’re separated. If I saw you face-to-face and said you’re a fat bitch, it would result in an emotional reaction that I would have to deal with. I would see the consequences unfold. Online, you’re removed and you don’t see the consequences. You can say as much nasty stuff as you like and nothing comes back to you.”

In the ABC show Cyberhate, Tara Moss undergoes an MRI scan on her brain while she reads violent messages…

Thankfully, cyberbullies and the platforms that give them a voice are now being taken to task by the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commission. After Inman Grant and her team assess a complaint, they can ask a social media platform to remove cyberbullying material within 48 hours or face a fine of $18,000 a day until the material is removed. But it doesn’t stop there.

“We also have the power to issue end-user notices,” Grant says. “It says we understand you sent X a post or text, we find that it violates the Act and constitutes serious cyberbullying and we ask them to take it down.” 

If the end-user fails to comply, they will also be issued with an infringement notice.

Originally from the US, Grant spent 17 years working for Microsoft and a number of years with Twitter, and says social media sites do care about abusive content.

“Nothing is ever going to be foolproof – there is no such thing as the ultimate state of safety. If there were, the technology would be unusable. I still think the platforms need to be building safety into their products before launching them, but having been inside some of these organisations, nobody wants negative content on their site, nobody wants paedophiles, cybercriminals, cyberbullies. These platforms are for free expression so monitoring them either isn’t desirable or isn’t feasible. A lot of companies are starting to use artificial intelligence or other technology to identify bullying content or grooming content.

“Twitter is finally going all in and they’ve put lots of engineering resources and dollars into really cracking down. Facebook recently announced they’ll be using photo matching technologies to help victims of revenge porn.”

It’s not so much Facebook, Twitter and Instagram Inman Grant is concerned about now, but other more insidious platforms and private chat apps. 

“The major global networks do have a sense of corporate responsibility. What we worry about are the more than 3000 websites that exist specifically to host revenge porn and extort money out of victims to have their image removed. 

“Another challenge is dark social, or hidden social. Kids are using Messenger and Whatsapp – they call it dark social because it’s out of the light, out of prying eyes. A lot of these messaging services are encrypted and out of the purview of operators to be able to halt bullying content or sexual exploitation.”

Despite the disturbing nature of Inman Grant’s job, she believes the benefits of technology far outweigh the risks.

“I think it’s important to note that bullying has existed from time immemorial, it has existed on the playground for a long time. I don’t think we’ll fully be able to eradicate it online, but I do feel social media companies are stepping up to address this. They are using more creative technologies to surface this abusive content across the industry and get them taken down quickly  and expeditiously.” 

*Name changed to protect privacy. 

How can parents protect children from cyberbullying?
Children’s eSafety Commissioner Julie Inman Grant (pictured) says parents need to be speaking with their kids “early and often” about how they’re using technology, letting them know they can come to them if they experience an issue that concerns them.

“They need to know their parents are not going to take their technology away as a result. If you take away their technology, you’re essentially taking away their social lifeline. We should all be engaged and involved in our kids’ online lives – talk to them about what they’re doing. 

“What we really need to do is build resilience in our kids and teach them good cyberjudgment. We’ve been talking about stranger danger for years; it’s much harder for a young person to decipher stranger danger in an online site. 

“You’ve probably seen the case in Queensland with the law professor who managed to convice people he was Justin Bieber and got them to take off their clothes and perform sex acts. He extorted them.

“More needs to be done in the schools because teenagers are programmed to be curious and take risks. You do need to talk to your kids about the risks. I do feel young people are getting a lot of peer pressure to share rudie nudies or racy shots. Without that frontal lobe development, I don’t think young people really understand what it means for them emotionally, occupationally, mentally and even socially and the devastating impact it can have if the photo goes viral and gets in the wrong hands. It’s out there forever.”

What to do if you are being cyberbullied
• Talk to someone you trust straight away.
• Don’t retaliate or respond.
• Block the bully and change your privacy settings.
•  Report the abuse to the service – most social media sites have a reporting area.
• Collect the evidence – keep phone messages, take screen shots or photos and print emails or social networking conversations.
• If the social media service fails to    remove the material within 48 hours of you reporting it to them and you are under 18, you can make a complaint to the Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner. Visit esafety.gov.au.
• If you are an adult victim of cyberbullying you can report the incident to the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network. Visit acorn.gov.au.
• If children need to talk to someone they can visit kidshelpline.com.au or call them 24/7 on
1800 55 180. Adults can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.