Editorial: New legislation can't come quickly enough

Last updated 13:00 26/02/2014

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Apparently one in five New Zealand college-age students say they have been cyber-bullied, whether online, via text message or e-photographs.

The Netsafe research came out a year ago, so if anything the number will be higher.

Most kids will have the coping skills to ignore the nastiness, or at least not let it get to them too much.

A lot has been done to help young people prepare themselves for the "reality" of life in the social media age. This is especially so in Nelson where a nationally recognised programme has been devised and shaped in Nelson schools and more recently exported to other parts of the country.

However, there have been some heart-breaking stories in recent years of young people who have been significantly damaged by cyber-bullies and the aptly-named internet "trolls".

It is all very well to suggest that those alarmed to the point of considering suicide should "toughen up", turn off their phones or shut down their Facebook page. However, right or wrong, for many young people today, a significant amount of their peer-group interaction is carried out via social media.

They should not have to become social lepers in order to evade the attentions of cyber-thugs. All bullies prey on the most vulnerable. That's how they get their kicks.

Judith Collins' Harmful Digital Communications Bill currently before the House will allow tough penalties for those cowardly idiots who snipe at others from behind their computer screens.

The bill could mean up to three years in jail or $2000 fines for people who send messages intending to cause harm. Inciting someone to commit suicide will carry a maximum three-year jail sentence.

Much of the so-called cyber-bullying is a lower level equivalent of name-calling in the schoolyard, and presumably will be treated as such by those enforcing the new law, which has passed its first reading in Parliament.

However, it is to be hoped that it will be an effective new tool for those investigating the more serious cases of personal cyber-attacks.

Such legislation does send a strong message of disapproval. Hopefully it will sink in where needed.

In Australia, there are new calls for reform of harassment laws following the weekend death of New Zealand-born celebrity Charlotte Dawson.

Ms Dawson's battles with depression have been well-documented, including her admission to hospital following a barrage of social media death threats.

Her sad end illustrates the plight faced by those grappling some form of mental illness and the ugly nature of those cowards who seize on vulnerable people and knowingly torment them.

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If the new bill makes it more likely that the authorities will go to the effort of tracking and prosecuting those involved in extreme cases of cyber-bullying, well and good.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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