Fighting cyber abuse with compliments

MIN-JAE KANG
Last updated 05:00 02/07/2014
Tip Varnakomala
Mark Coote
FIGHTING BACK ON BULLYING: Tip Varnakomala's website includes a "machine" that generates compliments that can be sent to other users.
Angus Slade
ROSS GIBLIN/ Fairfax NZ
BOUNCING BACK: Angus Slade, 14, who has used his own bullying experiences to create an animated anti-bullying video that has won a Google award.

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Creative Kiwi teens are fighting back against cyberbullying.

Christchurch's Tip Varnakomala is one of three winning entries in the inaugural NetSafe and Google Web Rangers competition, which encourages students to come up with ways to combat bad behaviour online.

Varnakomala's website - Project Positive - includes what he calls a "compliment machine" that separates it from other websites. The "machine" generates compliments that can be sent to other users.

"The response has been extremely positive. I've had so many submissions and I've only heard good things about it," Varnakomala said.

"I'm basically addicted to social media. So I see all this rubbish going on on all the different websites and everything. Heaps of my friends have been abused and everything.

"I know a lot of people who have been affected by cyber bullying, including myself so I wanted to do something, instead of just watching," Varnakomala said.

Google spokesman Ross Young said judges were impressed with the ways applicants addressed online safety.

"We were completely blown away by the time and energy put into each of the student campaigns.

"We didn't just ask people to put forward an idea; they had to also turn them into a reality and then use tools like social media, websites and school presentations to spread their message," Young said.

Varnakomala and winners from Auckland and Wellington beat 140 applicants and will go to Google Sydney later this month.

ANIMATED FILM WINS OVER GOOGLE BOSSES

Being a "white, weak, Christian" kid made Angus Slade an easy target for bullies at school.

So two years ago, he left St Bernard's College in Lower Hutt, and began home-schooling.

Now his confidence is back, and he will also meet Google bosses after entering his animated anti-bullying film in a competition. Angus, 14, has been making videos since he was 5, and in his winning entry he wrote and performed the theme song.

His mother, Carol, said the bullying had been tough on all of the family, and hearing Angus come home from school and say he did not want to live any more was the hardest thing for a parent.

"I didn't do too well at school academically and, when my husband said there was no way Angus was going back to school, I thought 'I can't do him justice'."

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But their decision to home-school had been a success, she said. Angus had a weekly tutor, but otherwise worked on his own.

"I had a lot of anxiety about it, but once I started researching and did the training I realised everything was at your fingertips," Carol said. "Home-schooling has been really good for Angus. His confidence is back."

His tutor told him about the video and his parents pushed him to attend the information day on making videos. His entry is based on the Melbourne Metro public service campaign "Dumb Ways to Die", which went viral on the internet two years ago.

Angus said home-schooling had "toughened him up" and, although he had only a handful of friends through his church youth group and band, that was all he needed.

His peers first picked on him when he cried in class. "I had a lot of stuff going on, and my aunty had been diagnosed with cancer. She was in the UK and then my mum left to go see her and I just broke down one day. That was the worst thing I could possibly have done, and after that I just became an easy target."

He said he was physically and emotionally bullied, held over the edge of the stairs by his bag, and humiliated in PE because "I could not play sport to save myself".

St Bernard's acting principal David Sefton said the college took bullying very seriously, followed up on every reported incident, and was pleased to hear of Angus's achievements.

The school provided homework for four months after his parents removed him, until the Ministry of Education approved home-schooling.

- Canterbury

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