The modern bully can wage a campaign of hate and coercion from anywhere using devices which teens find they cannot live without. Social media, video-sharing sites and interactive apps provide an environment where trolls co-exist with all the thrilling experiences that the online world delivers.

What has become clear in the past few years is that the malicious use of digital technology is having a pervasive and damaging impact. Research by the Law Commission found that one in 10 New Zealanders have experienced harmful communications on the internet. That number doubles for those aged between 18 and 29. Other studies show that as many as one in three high school students have endured some form of cyberbullying or harassment.

The effects, as our stories have reported, can be far more devastating than a bloody nose and may leave victims, especially young girls, deeply scarred. The impact of cyberbullying cannot be underestimated. Increased truancy, failure at school, depression, self-harm and suicide have all been linked to hateful posts.

A year ago, the Harmful Digital Communications Act took effect. Since then 38 prosecutions have been launched for alleged offences such as publicly posting explicit photos of ex-partners on social media sites, or sending harmful private emails or text messages. Three of those convicted have been jailed, such was the seriousness of their offending. The punishment sends a signal that the courts recognise the harm cyberbullying can cause.

The number of cases shows the legislation was necessary. The next step, which should make the process of dealing with digital bullies a lot faster and far less costly, is to start in November when NetSafe begins work as the “approved agency” under the legislation. Its role includes advising on steps people can take to sort out a problem, investigating and attempting to resolve complaints where harm has been caused, and providing education and advice about online safety and conduct. The approach is meant to clear up complaints swiftly, and has a backstop in that mandatory court orders can be sought for unresolved cases.

Much can be done on the prevention side. Social media giants are accepting they need to be responsible in managing digital technology. Facebook’s new tool allowing users to offer help to friends whose mental wellbeing is causing concern is a constructive and socially positive intervention.

Parents and schools have special responsibilities managing the digital behaviour of young New Zealanders. The Ministry of Education has a funding agreement with NetSafe for their programme of cyber education and safety in schools and the wider community. Parents need to reassure children they can be safe and secure from cyberbullies, and convey unconditional support to troubled youngsters. It is too early to say what impact the approach will have on cyberbullying. But it is entirely right that trouble spawned in a connected world should be confronted.

Source: The New Zealand Herald

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