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."
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