The family of Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett have stepped up their fight to stop bullying after the 14-year-old took her own life earlier this month.
The family of Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett have stepped up their fight to stop bullying after the 14-year-old took her own life earlier this month. Facebook

What we’ve got wrong about Dolly

OPINION

SINCE the tragic death of 14-year-old Amy "Dolly" Everett, I've been hearing a chorus of increasingly shrill voices calling to ban kids from social media. Ban specific apps! Ban social media platforms! I've even seen a Change.org petition.

Some of these calls come from child psychologists who you'd think would know their stuff.

However, what's clear to me as a cyberhate expert and trolling target is that these psychologists may know about children, but they don't understand cyberhate. And they are suggesting Band-Aid solutions for what is, in effect, a complex wound.

Let's be clear. The problem of bullying and harassment - whether online or offline - isn't caused by social media. It's caused by human behaviour. The trolls hounding Katelyn Simpson in the wake of Dolly's death and telling her "it should've been you not her" are real people sitting behind a keyboard somewhere.

One of the many abusive messages sent to Katelyn Simpson via an anonymous Snapchat account. Picture: Russell Simpson
One of the many abusive messages sent to Katelyn Simpson via an anonymous Snapchat account. Picture: Russell Simpson

We can all agree that sadists, which research suggests trolls are, existed long before the internet was around. (Yes, the networked nature of the internet may make things worse. But that's a story for another time.)

The notion of banning kids from social media is akin to stopping kids from going to a shopping mall in case they get assaulted. It's ludicrous and amounts to a type of victim blaming that punishes the cyberhate target and not the perpetrator.

The internet has been around since the 1980s and isn't going anywhere. Child psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg told the ABC that up to 70 per cent of primary-aged kids are on social media. Therefore, aren't we better off teaching our kids good digital citizenship and resilience in the face of bullying? Aren't we better off helping them use social media in limited bouts and under supervision?

In part, this might solve Carr-Gregg's concern that developing brains "simply do not have the neurological maturity to manage their digital footprint".

Remember when you were a teenager? You'd do the exact opposite of what your parents told you to. If we ban young people from social media, they will likely get on there anyway and keep this fact from the adults around them. Frankly, it's not a bright tactic.

The knee-jerk notion of banning specific apps or platforms is just as inadvisable because it won't stop other apps cropping up the next day.

Banning kids from social media won’t stop them accessing it — and won’t give them the skills they need to deal with cyber bullying.
Banning kids from social media won’t stop them accessing it — and won’t give them the skills they need to deal with cyber bullying.

Social media expert Anna Spargo-Ryan sees the situation this way: "The hate-filled bile that comes through on social media is abhorrent, but really, it's independent of the method. The way to respond to it and to get help for it … is the same as if it were offline.

"Cyber-bullying has the potential to inflict the same psychological damage as any other kind [of bullying]. Banning the platforms isn't even the beginning of a solution, because that's not the actual problem," she says.

The other thing no one in this conversation seems to be saying is that social media can be helpful for vulnerable kids. For example, kids who self-harm or have eating disorders or are LGBTI or perhaps have a rare disease or live in remote areas, often find support groups online. Are we really going to take these crucial support networks away from them?

Here's a case-in-point. In 2016, I conducted an investigation for news.com.au into Australia's shocking youth self-harm statistics. One of my interviewees was an incredible young woman called Nikki. She runs an important and encouraging support group on Facebook for people who self-harm but seek to become well. Banning young people from social media would stop them accessing help like this.

Let's also turn our minds to the monolithic social media companies who, as a community, we've forgotten to regulate. They must have a duty of care towards us, their users.

A few days ago I was speaking to Maurice Blackburn employment lawyer Josh Bornstein, who has an interest in cyberhate and the law. He said to me: "If you made social media companies liable [for cyberhate], then all hell would break lose. We'd see a radical change in their behaviour."

There's one last thorn in my side when it comes to the current public discussion we're having about online bullying and harassment. Why do so many people seem to believe that kids can't handle cyberhate, but adults can? This is blatantly NOT true and my investigations show this.

Just think for a moment about TV presenter and model Charlotte Dawson who died by suicide in 2014. As I've said previously, some of those close to her see trolling as a significant factor in her death.

Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett’s family have spoken out in an effort to stop cyber bullying after the teen took her own life earlier this month. Picture: Facebook
Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett’s family have spoken out in an effort to stop cyber bullying after the teen took her own life earlier this month. Picture: Facebook

Think also about 18-year-old Jessica Cleland from Melbourne who died by suicide the same year. Both these people were adults - and there are many more cases out there (it's just most of their families don't go public about it). Sadly, I know this first-hand because numerous cyberhate targets have written to me about their own suicidal thoughts and attempts.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I see members of the community regularly expressing this help-the-kids-but-the-adults-are-fine sentiment in relation to cyberhate.

For instance, when the eSafety Commissioner's Office was first created, it was only for children. The role was later expanded to encompass adults at the end of 2016.

Even US First Lady Melania Trump has fallen into this trap by saying: "As adults, many of us are able to handle mean words, even lies. Children and teenagers can be fragile … Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers."

If you could see my email inbox, you'd quickly understand cyberhate affects everyone - men, women and children. Although some groups are more vulnerable than others, anyone can be a cyberhate target and have their life wrecked by it.

When looking for solutions to cyberhate, Nigel Phair, director of the Centre for internet Safety at the University of Canberra, draws an analogy to the way the community has reduced trauma on the roads - through safer car and road design, better law enforcement and changing social norms around damaging behaviours, such as speeding and drink driving.

"In terms of cyberhate, the whole ecosystem needs to respond via technical and non-technical means," he says.

Charlotte Dawson called out cyber bullies many times before she eventually took her own life. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images
Charlotte Dawson called out cyber bullies many times before she eventually took her own life. Picture: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

So, please, think more deeply about this and don't be part of reporting or perpetuating unhelpful myths and social attitudes about trolling. They actually stop us solving the problem.

Meanwhile, if you're a parent wondering how you can talk to your child about social media and bullying, jump onto the eSafety website for helpful tips such as:

• Listen, don't judge

• Let your child know you are there to help them, even if they're in trouble, no matter what

• Encourage empathy and resilience

 

Ginger Gorman is journalist and cyberhate expert. She's currently writing a book about the subject, due to be published by Hardie Grant in 2019. Ginger is one half of Media Bootcamp. You can follow her on Twitter @GingerGorman.


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