TV show led to cyberbullying hell

TRACY NEAL
Last updated 12:00 19/07/2014
Loz and Tom
JOHN SELKIRK/Fairfax NZ

TAKING A STAND: Nelson couple Tom and Loren Heaphy are speaking out against cyber-bullying.

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Being called an "infertile fugly wife" by a stranger hurt Loren Heaphy to the core, but her best defence against a volley of vicious online comments was not to engage.

The Nelson woman, who was half of the Tom and Loz team on TV3's The Block NZ last year, has gone public about the experience of being cyber slandered, in the hope it will start a conversation locally.

Heaphy's experience of being at the receiving end of some nasty online attacks was the basis of her presentation at Thursday's Pecha Kucha performance as part of the Winter Music Festival in Nelson.

Pecha Kucha showcases presenters on a variety of subjects in a format where each talks about their chosen 20 slides which are on screen for 20 seconds each.

Heaphy, who works as the international marketing manager for Nelson Tasman Tourism, received huge applause for her call for people to think more about how they responded online, including on local media forums, particularly the more cowardly attacks from people shielded by anonymity.

She said even though the personal attacks on her and other contestants happened during last year's television show, she felt Pecha Kucha was a good arena in which to raise her own experience with the problem.

"I raised it where I knew there would be parents with children, and people in the community who perhaps didn't understand a lot of this happens, even in a smaller place like Nelson."

Heaphy said even though she and other contestants on the show were well supported, particularly by the TV3 production team and the channel's Facebook moderators, there were a few individuals who "made life hell".

"We knew that if we put ourselves in the public eye, we had opened ourselves up to it.

"The majority [of comments] were very positive, and we were prepared for it to happen to a degree, but not that level of viciousness."

Heaphy said it left her deeply upset and "feeling dreadful". Some of the comments posted on various social media sites included: "What a cow, I feel sorry for her hubby. Does anyone else think that when Tom looks at Loz he looks like he can't stand his own wife?"

Another said: "How could Tom ever marry someone so ugly as Loz. She thinks she's ‘curvy' and hot but actually she's just fat and old. Tom should leave Loz and marry me - then Tom could have babies without him having to worry about an infertile fugly wife."

She said common advice is not to look at online comments, but she knew that was difficult. In her case, she felt it was important to know what others might be reading about her.

"I found the best thing was not to engage so as not to add fuel to the fire. I have walked away from this feeling grateful for the support of family, friends, my husband and employer."

Heaphy said it was sad that while in most situations comments were positive, "we always let those few get to us".

"Now I can laugh at it but at the time I couldn't. A lot of teenagers and young people don't always have the maturity to deal with this sort of thing.

"I was 30 and I could barely deal with it. I just want to raise awareness and start conversations between parents and young people.

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"I also ask people to temper what they write and challenge them to think about whether they would say the same thing to someone's face."

Legislation now before Parliament would make it a crime to attack others online.

The Harmful Digital Communications Bill, introduced by Justice Minister Judith Collins, would make it an offence to send or post harmful messages - punishable by a $2000 fine or three months' jail - and create a specialised enforcement agency to deal with cyberbullying complaints.

If you have concerns about online harassment, visit netsafe.org.nz

- The Nelson Mail

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