In Bullying Around the World

Cyberbullying in Australia: Reaching Epic Proportions

In the world of digital technology, there are both advantages and disadvantages. The Internet offers numerous amenities that countries all over the world benefit from on a daily basis. Australia is no exception. At the same time, digital technology can pose problems when used in an inappropriate manner. Cyberbullying is one of those problems. Many countries today are experiencing the backlash of cyberbullying, especially among their youth. Cyberbullying in Australia is rapidly reaching epidemic proportions.

The Effects of Advanced Digital Technology in Australia

As a highly developed country, Australia enjoys all the benefits that digital technology has to offer. On an international scale, Australian citizens are among some of the most connected people on the planet, with many netizens owning three or more digital devices. Enhanced connectivity makes it much easier for cyberbullying to permeate a society. Recent reports indicate that in Australia, one out of every 8 people have experienced Internet bullying.

Cyberbullying is taking its toll on Australian youth and adults. The more addicted people are to online usage and social media, the greater their chances of being a bullying target. Like many other cultures around the world, Australians have shown an increased dependency on digital technology for communications, business transactions and socialization. ‘Techno-stress’ (inability to disengage from the Internet), ‘FONK’ (fear of not knowing) and ‘FOMO’ (fear of missing out) are just a few of the phenomena that have arisen due to increased connectivity. Australian children and teens, in particular, have experienced these phenomena in relation to social media, making them easy prey for bullying on social network sites.

By definition, cyberbullying shares the same characteristics of traditional bullying only it occurs through digital means, i.e. websites, social media, chat rooms, emails and texting on mobile devices. Cyberbullies have been known to behave ruthlessly and without warning in launching their attacks. Unlike traditional bullying, cyberbullying can intrude on a person’s privacy anywhere there is a connection online; this means victims can feel its negative effects in the privacy of their home, at work, at school or just about anywhere they have an online connection. Australian youth who connect frequently to social media increase their risk of being victims of predators, groomers and pedophiles.

Although there are no laws against cyberbullying in Australia, per se, states can use current legislation to prosecute serious cyber offenses. In this way, Australians can stop cyberbullying from making further headway into their society. In Victoria, cyberbullies can be prosecuted for stalking and severe online harassment under new provisions that strengthen the Victorian Crimes Act 1958.

Australian police also encourage bystanders to stand up against cyberbullying as it helps curtail the bullying behavior. Research shows that cyberbullies often stop or minimize their behavior within 10 minutes when witnesses intervene. Australian police are particularly concerned about the harm cyberbullying can cause young children who are naïve about using social sites.

Facts about Cyberbullying in Australia   

Australia has a history of online bullying in both schools and business environments. In 2013, Australia ranked as the top country in the world for cyberbullying on social media with one out of every four kids experiencing bullying on social media sites. That same year, it was estimated that almost 80% of Australia’s child population under the age of 10 used social sites. Anti-bullying specialist John Caldwell expressed his concern about children’s lack of parental supervision when going online.

“Many parents monitor their children’s use of the internet but you simply can’t be everywhere, particularly if your child is going online via a mobile,” said Caldwell. “Kids are generally more tech-savvy than adults, and more capable of controlling technology and platforms than their parents via privacy settings and hiding browser history. It’s important to note, too, that while the most popular social platforms do require users to be at least 13-years-old, research shows close of half of teenagers who use networking sites admit to lying about their age. Kids are smart and if they don’t want you to know what they’re up to, generally, they’ll find a way.”

Reports from the Australia Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) indicated that from 2009 to 2013, the percentage of children in Australia aged 8-9 years old who considered social media an ‘essential part of their lives’ doubled. Although parents recognized the importance of cyber safety with their teens, there seemed to be a gap when it came to teaching their younger kids online safety habits. By educating their kids on how to use the Internet safely at an early age, parents could help them avoid bullying problems as they grow into teens.

Statistics show that over 35% of Australian children 8-11 years old own a mobile phone. When it came to teens aged 16-17 years old, this figure rose to 94%. Records show the number of Australian children accessing the Internet via smart phone is steadily increasing; unfortunately, too few are receiving the online safety training they need from responsible adults to protect them from cyberattacks.

The Importance of Cyber Safety  

Australia has had its fair share of cyberbullying tragedies, emphasizing the importance of teaching young people how to use the Internet wisely and, in particular, how to handle bullying online. In 2009, Allem Halkic, a year 12 high school student, jumped to his death from the West Gate in Victoria due to being bullied online.  Apparently, the teen had been receiving threatening texts from one of his peers. His suicide triggered the first prosecution in Australia due to internet bullying.

In 2012, the ‘bullycide’ of Paige Menzies, a 16 year old student in Berwick, was the subject of a special news  documentary entitled “There is No 3G in Heaven” covering teen suicides due to cyberbullying. The documentary was aired on Australia’s premier TV program ‘Four Corners’ and revealed how Facebook bullying had destroyed Paige’s life. Paige wrote these final words in a suicide note she left behind, “To every person who bullies I have no respect for you. You’re the reason why I wanted to end my life.”

That same year, The Age, a major Melbourne newspaper chain, decided to break tradition and report bullying cases that terminated in suicide. Their decision came after three girls from local schools took their own lives as a result of being bullied online. The newspaper felt stories covering these tragedies could help raise online bullying awareness and hopefully prevent cyberbullying suicides from occurring in the future.

According to cyberbullying statistics released from the UNSW (University at New South Wales) Social Policy Research Center, approximately 50,000 children in Australia experience internet bullying annually. One out of every five young people in Australia aged 8-17 are involved in cyberbullying activities every year.

The bullying research was funded by the Abbott government in 2014, led by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott, in conjunction with a $10 million project to ‘Enhance Online Safety for Children.’

The research further revealed the following cyberbullying facts:

  • Children between the ages of 10-15 are at greater risk of cyberattacks; this risk decreases for teens between the ages of 16-17
  • An estimated 463,000 Australian children and teens were cyberbullied in 2013; of these, 365,000 were within the 10-15 year old bracket
  • Middle school and high school cyberbullying activity is ‘rapidly increasing’ since first emerging in Australian society
  • 72% of Australian schools reported cyberbullying incidents in 2013
  • One secondary school averaged 22 complaints annually

“As more children and young people use the internet and have access to smart phones, cyberbullying has become more prevalent,” says Professor Ilan, Katz, chief investigator from the Social Policy Research Centre. “Our research shows that cyberbullying can have a worse impact on victims than ‘offline’ bullying.” Professor Katz also holds the post of chief investigator for the project Youth Exposure to, and Management of, Cyberbullying Incidents in Australia.

Long Term Effects of Cyberbullying in Australia

The long term effects of cyberbullying have been well documented in countries all over the world. Victims have suffered from anxiety, low self-esteem, mental and emotional distress and depression.

According to Paul Fletcher, parliamentary secretary for Australian’s Federal Minister for Communications, “Cyberbullying can be serious…  and its consequences can be more far-reaching than bullying in the schoolyard.  If you are bullied online, the humiliation is worse because you know lots of people can be watching online.” It’s this humiliation that often leads young people to commit suicide.

The negative memory of bullying incidents can follow a child or teen into his or her adult life, making it difficult for him or her to adjust to the rigors of adulthood. Professor Katz advocates that schools put programs in place to educate children and teens about online etiquette. Young people need to know the harmful consequences that cyberbullying can have on people’s lives.

Katz also believes measures should be put in place to facilitate the rapid removal of offensive material that goes up on social sites. Slow removal of abusive content only contributes to teens taking drastic actions such as self-harm or suicide. Teens, however, are not the only ones who suffer from cyberattacks. The tragic death of Australian TV host Charlotte Dawson revealed the devastating effects social media cyberbullying can have on any life.

Dawson, an active proponent against cyberbullying, suffered for years from depression which was aggravated by a hateful trolling campaign against her. According to her autobiography Air Kiss & Tell, Dawson was well acquainted with what she called the ‘depression bogeyman.’ In 2012, Dawson attempted suicide after being barraged with abusive comments on Twitter, one of which suggested that she ‘hang herself.’

Dawson re-tweeted many of the abusive messages she received to expose her offenders, saying: “If you’re going to express those points of view, you should do it with a face and a name so that you can be accountable.” Two years later, February 2014, Dawson succumbed to the taunts of cyberbullies by taking her own life. Her body was discovered at her waterside apartment located in Woolloomooloo, a suburb of Sidney, capital city of New South Wales.

According to Kate Carnell, the chief executive of the mental health organization ‘Beyond Blue,’ social media bullying can easily trigger depression. “Because people can bully anonymously, it makes it more … dangerous,” she said. “People do it because they think it’s smart, it’s funny, but the message we have to get out is that it’s not. It can do serious damage.”

Carnell urges victims to speak out when targeted by bullies and not just suffer in silence. “The important thing to do is speak up about it. People think ‘I should be able to manage this by myself’ but bullying needs to be reported. Tell someone. Report it to [the social media website], talk to a friend. If bullying continues, it’s important to report it to the police,” she said.

Suicides: A Tragic Consequence of Cyberattacks

Australia experienced over 200 suicides in 2014 alone. This figure was much higher than deaths caused by car accidents. Unfortunately, much less effort and attention was put into suicide prevention than prevention of auto accidents.

When young people commit suicide, police often start their investigation by checking the young person’s cellphone or computer.  Such was the case of 19 year old Jessica Cleland from Victoria who committed suicide on Easter Saturday 2014. Upon checking her mobile phone and laptop, police discovered a torrent of horrible texts and messages on social media sites.

When writing his report about Jessica’s death, the coroner commented: “Although it is not possible to identify, with any degree of certainty, the factors contributing to a person’s decision to take their own life, it is evident that messages received by Jessica online proximate to her death, in conjunction with the difficulty she was apparently experiencing in her relationship with her boyfriend, were precipitating factors.”

Jessica endured the worst kind of insults on social media from supposed ‘friends’ right up to the night she took her life. The circumstances surrounding her death devastated her family. It also revealed the dangerous effects that social media bullying can have on a young person’s life. Unless action is taken to prosecute those responsible for cyberbullying suicides, online bullying will continue to be a ‘silent killer’ in Australia for years to come.

Doctoring Photos – Australia’s Latest Cyberbullying Trend

In the latest of cyberbullying trends in Australia, bullies are downloading photos from Facebook or Instagram and altering the images in an obscene manner in order to humiliate their victim. In some instances, derogatory messages or lies accompany the photos which are recirculated online.

Reports from the Children’s eSafety Commissioner reveal 124 incidents of online bullying among Australian young people within the last nine months of 2016. Over 4,000 Australian youth were referred to the country’s national Kid’s Helpline for counseling and support due to being harassed online.

“We have dealt with cases of serious cyberbullying, where students have victimised schoolmates, sent false rumours, or ridiculed them,” said e-Safety Commissioner Alastair MacGibbon. “We have also acted to remove harmful photographs used to bully and belittle.”

MacGibbon suggested parents report all abusive behavior to their Internet provider as well as the social site where the material was posted. MacGibbon further told parents to save evidence of serious abusive acts so police could use this material to prosecute offenders once they were caught.

Students Suspended for Perpetrating Cyberattacks

In April of 2016, 50 students were suspended from Toronto High School, located near Newcastle, New South Wales, for posting and/or “liking” inappropriate material about classmates on Facebook. The suspensions, which ranged from four to 20 days were upheld by Principal Mark McConville who wrote:

“Toronto High School does not tolerate any harassment of any students. Imagine if it was your child who opened up their Facebook account to find over 50 ‘likes’ about a negative/abusive/harassing post about them.”

After posting the negative comments, the perpetrators encouraged fellow classmates to post similar material or “like” the malicious posts they saw. Once Toronto High School educators received word of the offense, they called a school assembly to expose the bullies and settle the matter as quickly as possible.

Pornography Scandal Hits Australian High Schools

In another cyberattack involving secondary schools in Australia, approximately 2,000 sexual photos of female students were posted by male students on an internationally based website without the girls’ knowledge or consent. According to reports from news.com.au, over 70 Australian schools were involved in the pornography scandal. In addition to soliciting sexually explicit photos, the site asked members to provide personal data of young women to include physical features, phone numbers, addresses and friendship circles to post online.

Australian federal police have acknowledged being ‘aware of the existence of a website which encourages users to upload images of a sexual nature’, a number of which ‘depict non-consenting and/or underage women’.

“The AFP is currently liaising with its domestic and international law enforcement partners and relevant government agencies to evaluate this matter and to determine appropriate courses of action,” a spokesperson said.

Reports from the Queensland police to the Australian Associated Press indicated they were collaborating with law enforcement across Australia concerning this case. The Northern Territory Police Force had received no complaints from their area concerning the matter. In New South Wales, detectives from the Sex Crimes Squad’s Child Exploitation Internet Unit were networking with fellow police forces to see if pornography offenses had been committed in their state. Jeremy Rockliff, Education Minister for the state of Tasmania, felt the incident had “taken cyberbullying to another more extreme level.”

According to news reports from news.com.au, the website had been cited for pornography offenses before. As the site was hosted overseas, however, no action was taken. Brighton Grammar, St. Michael’s Grammar School and Melbourne Grammar were just a few of the elite Melbourne high schools involved in the scandal.

According to Sharna Bremner from the group ‘End Rape on Campus,’ “There are already plenty of consensual adult nude images online that are easily accessible. But these boys and men are not interested in that, because it’s not the nudity alone that they are after. What they are getting off on is the very fact that these images are not consensual and that the victims have no idea they are being exploited.”

Mary Barry, CEO of the organization ‘Our Watch’ concurred with Bremner’s assessment, saying “another day, another discovery of vile, disrespectful behaviour towards women and girls. Sharing naked photos without consent is abuse, plain and simple.”

Office of the Children’s eSafety Commissioner

The project to Enhance Online Safety for Children advocated by the Abbott government had a 3-fold purpose:

1.         To implement a system whereby malicious content could be removed quickly from social sites

2.         To establish the role of Children’s e-Safety Commissioner to promote e-safety among children

3.         To allocate funds for establishing online safety programs in Australian schools

Today the Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner plays a key role in the prevention of online bullying in Australian schools. The Office organizes online safety educational programs for Australian youth, runs a service to receive cyberbullying complaints and addresses legal matters concerning online material via its Online Content Scheme program. The ultimate goal of the Office is to educate youth on responsible online usage and promote a safer, more positive online experience for all Australians.

Currently, the Office has approximately 59,000 teachers and students from schools across the country enrolled in its Virtual Classroom project. The project features video presentations by expert Internet safety trainers and manages such programs as iParent, offering e-Safety resources for parents and caregivers and eSafety women, helping women manage digital technology risks. The Office also offers educational resources that can be used by teachers to train their students in responsible Internet usage.

Cyber Safety in Australian Schools 

Australian schools recognize the fact that students’ safety is essential for their social and academic development. Students have a right to study and learn within a safe and supportive school environment. E-Safety is part of the Australian school system’s commitment to safeguarding the welfare and wellbeing of their students. Through the Office of the Children’s e-Safety Commissioner, the Australian government provides students with the education they need to use the Internet in a safe and productive manner.

When it comes to cyber-safety in Australian schools, the Department of Education works in conjunction with the Department of Communications and ACMA to organize and manage cyber-safety programs. For more cyberbullying information and counsel about online safety, parents and students can contact any one of the following organizations:

Bullying No Way!

This educational website offers greater insight into bullying prevention measures and programs in Australian schools. Parents and local community members will find the cyber safety resources of great assistance in helping to protect their children from cyberattacks.

Cybersmart Program

This ACMA sponsored program works on the national level to promote cyber safety in Australian schools. The program encourages digital participation by teaching kids safe online strategies that reduce the risk of cyberbullying and empower kids to use the Internet wisely and productively.

Safe Schools Hub

Supported by Australia’s National Safe Schools Framework, the Safe Schools Hub puts a wealth of e-Safety resources and information at the fingertips of local communities to encourage responsible use of the Internet. The Hub’s goals are to help cultivate student responsibility, build positive school environments and establish respectful relationships. The Hub also provides active support to victims of anti-social behavior such as cyberbullying.

The Cybersafety Help Button

This free resource can be downloaded onto people’s mobile devices and computers to provide them with comprehensive cyber safety information at the touch of a button. Through the use of this help button, people can personally chat with a cyber safety expert about online problems, report abusive behavior or learn more about online safety practices.

Cybersafety Help-Australian Government Facebook page

This page updates people on cyber safety news and issues currently affecting Australian society. People can also find additional educational resources related to online safety strategies. More information concerning government e-Safety initiatives that show how to deal with cyberbullying issues is available through the Department of Communications and ACMA.

Cyberbullying Laws in Australia

Certain cyberbullying activities can be prosecuted as criminal acts under existing Australian laws. Such activities include:

  • Threatening, harassing or using the Internet or phone in an offensive manner
  • Stalking (sending messages or texts with the intent of causing fear or harm)
  • Hacking into someone else’s internet account without their permission
  • Defamation (spreading rumors or lies with the intent of damaging someone’s reputation and character)
  • Sending messages or texts that encourage others to commit suicide

Threatening or Harassing Others via the Internet or Phone

In Australia, it’s against the law to use a phone or Internet connection to harass, threaten or offend others. Online posts or messages are considered offensive if they cause others to become angry, humiliated or repulsed. Offenders could receive a maximum jail sentence of three years. The following are a few real life examples of online harassment and threats.

In 2010 in the state of Queensland, a young man was convicted of harassing an ex-girlfriend by sending her hateful Facebook messages and mobile texts. He received probation and was ordered to undergo counseling.

In 2015, Zane Alchin of Sydney was charged with sexual harassment of 25 year old Olivia Melville on Facebook. During questioning by local police, Alchin admitted to being drunk when committing the crime and pleaded not guilty due to ignorance that his actions represented criminal activity. He also expressed remorse for causing Melville such problems. Later his lawyer changed Alchin’s plea to guilty. The case is currently in court; its outcome may establish a precedent for other cases involving social media harassment and threats in the future.

Cyber Stalking

Cyber stalking occurs when people receive unwanted attention via such medium as emails, mobile texts, unsolicited phone calls, social media messages, etc., that frighten or intimidate them. Stalking is considered criminal activity in South Australia if the messages are meant to harass others or cause them harm. Those convicted of stalking may receive a jail term of up to three years.

In 2009, a man in Victoria was convicted of cyber stalking after copying pictures from a young girl’s profile without her consent and reposting them along with her personal details on adult sites. He was sent to jail.

Hacking Accounts

Hacking into someone else’s online account without their permission is against national and state law in Australia. If convicted, offenders can receive a maximum jail sentence of two years.

Defamation

Publishing untruthful information about others with the intent of causing hurt or harm is considered a criminal offense in South Australia. It carries a maximum jail sentence of three years.

In 2009, a teen was convicted of defamation for creating a slanderous Facebook page of a local policeman. He received a two year probationary sentence (good behavior bond).

Bullies are also liable for personal lawsuits due to defamation online. In 2008, an Australian man was ordered to pay $40,000 to an ex-girlfriend as compensation for pain and suffering after he threatened to display sex tapes he had taken of her. She filed a lawsuit for invasion of privacy, breach of trust and intent to cause emotional harm.

Promoting Suicide

It’s a criminal offense in South Australia to post messages or texts that encourage others to commit suicide. If convicted, bullies can receive a maximum prison term of 14 years (if death occurs due to their suicide posts).

Discrimination

Cyberbullying activities that involve unwanted sexual advances or threats or discriminatory remarks should be reported to the South Australia Equal Opportunity Commission or Human Rights Commission. Discriminatory comments are those that mock others due to their race, gender, sexuality, disability, ethnic background, etc.

Workplace Cyberbullying in Australia

A 2015 study by the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) reveals that cyberbullying has become quite a problem among Australia’s business culture. Reduced job satisfaction, stress and low productivity were just a few of the repercussions that cyberbullying had caused. By taking stock of cyberbullying signs among their workforce, employers can take action early on before the problem escalates to major proportions.

The QUT academic research study conducted by Dr. Felicity Lawrence, a QUT faculty member, was the first in its class regarding the extent and impact of cyberbullying on public servants on the job. “The implications of this research are critical for Australian organisations looking to grow into the future. Traditional workplace bullying costs the national economy up to $36 billion each year, so the cost of cyberbullying on productivity could be profound,” said Lawrence, an advocate of no bullying government legislation.

After conducting interviews with 600 Australian employees from local, state and federal governments, the study concluded that approximately 72% of survey participants had been involved or had witnessed online bullying within the last 6 months; 74% ranked their place of employment as ‘highly stressful’ due to bullying acts.

The public servants who participated in the survey pointed to a ‘cyber-underground’ in their place of employment as the cause of negative cyberbullying activity. This ‘cyber-underground’ made it possible for bullies to harass others without getting caught.

“Workplace cyberbullying is overt or anonymous person or task-related bullying where other workers or external clients use technology to instantaneously and publically broadcast a comment, video or picture, anywhere and anytime, to embarrass or defame the target,” said Lawrence. “Even one defamatory video, post or comment has the capacity to go viral, and once it’s on the internet, it is hard to remove and can damage an employee’s reputation, and potentially their career.”

According to Lawrence, it’s not unusual for public servants to become bullying targets via emails or social media posts. Those in positions of authority may make decisions that negatively impact their clients or staff, prompting bullying attacks. Cyberbullying can cause conflict and dissention in the workplace environment, making it difficult for a company or organization to make progress in its work goals.

Approximately half of the employees surveyed in the QUT research study reported that cyberbullying had negatively affected their performance, lowering their level of productivity. A third of the employees confessed that cyberbullying had made them discontented with their career choice.

Lack of government response further aggravated the problem as employees found it difficult to instigate change. Over half of the employees surveyed felt the anti-bullying strategies at their place of employment were ineffective, exposing their employers’ lack of compliance to ensure the safety and wellbeing of employees under Australia’s Work Health Safety Act 2011.

“One practical solution to mitigate workplace cyberbullying would be to develop federal anti-cyberbullying legislation covering all Australian workplaces,” Lawrence commented. “Organisations should also be establishing clear policies supported by management along with effective training and education programs to address the issue.”

Brodie’s Law   

In June of 2011, the state of Victoria passed anti-bullying legislation that made severe bullying a criminal act that carried a maximum jail term of 10 years. The legislation – Brodie’s Law – was named after Brodie Panlock, a 19 year old woman who took her own life in September of 2006 after suffering brutal bullying on the job. Brodie’s Law extends the stalking provisions of the Crimes Act 1958 so that it covers serious bullying and cyberbullying behavior.

Under Brodie’s Law, serious bullying offenders at work, school or anywhere in the local community can be prosecuted within Australia’s criminal court system. The law covers physical bullying, verbal bullying, psychological bullying and cyberbullying offenses to include making threats, harassment and posting malicious content on social network sites.

Over the last five years, Brodie’s Law has served to draw attention to the seriousness of workplace bullying and the damage it can cause. The law conveys a strong message to bullies that abusive behavior online or off that leads to self-harm or suicide won’t be tolerated on the job or anywhere else in the state of Victoria.

Since Brodie’s Law went into effect in 2011, local police estimate that approximately 60 offenders have been indicted for committing over 140 bullying offenses in the state of Victoria. According to Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Aston, “… these figures could be only the tip of the iceberg.” Ashton was gravely concerned over how extensive workplace and online bullying had become.

Before this legislation, charges for office bullying could only be made under the Occupational Health & Safety Act which made provision for offenders to be fined but not given jail time. After Brodie’s suicide, her parents campaigned relentlessly for stronger anti-bullying laws that brought tougher penalties for perpetrators of serious bullying crimes. Brodie’s Law comes with a maximum punishment of 10 years, depending on the seriousness of the crime.

Although no law will bring Brodie back, her parents took heart that others would benefit from this legislation and that, hopefully, the law would minimize workplace bullying and cyberbullying in the future. “The heartening thing we can say is Brodie didn’t die for nothing,” Brodie’s father said.

By enacting stronger anti-cyberbullying legislation and promoting e-Safety programs that educate youth on Internet use, Australia is taking measures to put a stop to cyberbullying attacks. Recognizing that a problem with cyberbullying exists in their schools and places of employment is the first step toward finding long lasting solutions. Australia’s commitment to protect its youth and adult population from Internet bullying will create a safer online community for all its netizens.

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