You have 'hate' mail

Last updated 13:00 05/04/2014
Bullying

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A teenager in Marlborough talks to Kat Duggan about being victimised and bullied online

Not knowing who is behind the computer screen is the hardest part of receiving "hate" mail, a Marlborough teenager says.

One of the comments posted to her online even told her to "go die".

Like much of the bullying that goes on via social media and other websites, the comment was anonymous.

Such an easy attack to make, but so hurtful for the person receiving it, especially if they are already feeling vulnerable.

The counsellor who helped the teenager after the bullying attacks says people who join the online world need to be prepared to take steps to protect themselves from cyberbullying.

Bullying by social media and other forms of online contact has become another aspect of conflict, according to Marlborough Girls' College guidance counsellor Julie Saul.

She deals with cases of cyberbullying almost daily, and says it has become just another dimension of bullying.

"We will never stop people [from] being mean.

"No matter how fantastic you are in your life there will be someone that doesn't like you," Saul says.

Many of the girls she has dealt with have also begun using social media and texting to deal with conflict, which is a normal part of life but it is getting harder to resolve within the school, she says.

"We want to try encourage people to work through their conflict and resolve issues calmly. But there is an added complication of stuff that's happening outside school.

"We're often trying to resolve issues that have been created or made worse by social media."

The problem is that once an issue is made public via social media, people not previously involved feel they have a right to add their 2 cents worth.

"There are sometimes even parents that get involved with a conflict expressed on Facebook, and it's not helpful," she says.

"People are making it their problem when it was nothing to do with them."

Social media sites that have been used to cause particular problems are Facebook, ask.fm and sometimes Twitter, Saul says.

While Facebook is used by the most people, ask.fm - a website where users can ask other users questions - was more difficult to deal with because people had the option to post comments anonymously.

For one 15-year-old Marlborough Girls' student, the anonymity of ask.fm had made the situation harder to deal with than face-to-face bullying, despite moving schools because of personal attacks.

Not knowing who was making the comments was the hardest part of receiving "hate", she says.

On her ask.fm account, "out of nowhere, I got all these comments for no reason, saying you're fat, you're ugly, you're a hippo".

One of the comments even told her to "go die".

"It's quite sad, you would never think that somebody actually wants you to go and die," she says.

"They don't know how much it actually affects your confidence and stuff."

The girl, who the Express has agreed not to name, says she has a feeling about who was posting the comments.

She didn't have a personal issue with the girls, but is friends with somebody who does and believes she was getting the "hate" purely because of their association.

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Saul says people need to be prepared to take action to protect themselves in a digital age, where social media is used every day - most of it in a positive way.

"[Social media] can also increase our safety and can increase your feeling of connection.

"But if you're not feeling that good in yourself, do you think ask.fm is a good idea?"

The death of New Zealand TV personality Charlotte Dawson in February highlighted the need for young people to think carefully about their actions online, and where they can go for help, Saul says.

Many of the problems she has dealt with involve young girls affected by low self-esteem. Using social media often opens them up for criticism or nasty comments, she says.

Victims of bullying can talk to friends, parents, teachers, or even the police to get help.

"I'd hate to think that there are people who think that the only way out of being bullied is to kill themselves," she says.

Online users have the option of blocking bullies, or contacting website administrators to report abuse or inappropriate behaviour on the websites.

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill, which is going through the select committee stage before becoming law, may have a small impact on cyberbullies but Saul is not convinced.

The proposed law will make it illegal to send messages and post material online with intent to cause harm, punishable by up to three months in jail or a $2000 fine. The maximum penalty for inciting someone to commit suicide would increase to three years' jail.

Young people are often the instigators of cyberbullying, and Saul says she is sceptical about how anyone under 17 will be prosecuted in court.

"It would make [police] youth aid really busy . . . but I guess some people would be, like, ‘oh, I don't wanna be in trouble with police'," she says.

Netsafe executive director Martin Cocker says the new law will give bullying victims options they didn't have now, and create a framework to define cyberbullying and harmful communication.

Having a legal framework will be helpful when the organisation is trying to explain to young people what they should and should not be doing, particularly when specific punishments are laid out, he says.

About 15 per cent to 25 per cent of students in New Zealand are victims of cyberbullying each year, while about one in 10 adults say they have been subjected to harmful digital communication, Cocker says.

The Marlborough student says being targeted by cyberbullies has opened her eyes to the nasty ways people can use social media and the dangers of strangers being able to look at your online profiles.

She decided to delete her ask.fm account to avoid being targeted again.

"It's your choice if you want to go on ask.fm [but] you've just got to realise that some people are nasty."

- The Marlborough Express

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