The Crime of Cyber-bullying in Australia
Last month 14 year old Amy “Dolly” Jayne Everett took her own life after what her father claims was many months of severe online harassment and bullying. The suicide of the beautiful young woman best known for modelling the iconic Akubra outback hat brand shocked the nation and prompted Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to plead for an end to both the online and real life bullying that has been plaguing our youth (Source:Washington Post).
Unfortunately Everett’s tragic death is not an anomaly. Every year teenagers across the nation are taking their own lives, leaving behind devastated families and communities to ask why.
News reports highlight how each week eight children aged five to 17 die by suicide in Australia. A 32 per cent increase since 2006. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics report Causes of Death, suicide is one of the leading causes of death among children and youth between the ages of 5 and 17 years old. In 2015, one-third or 33.9 per cent of the deaths of youth aged 15 to 24 was due to suicide. Youth Beyond Blue reports that suicide accounts for more deaths of young people than car accidents, the second leading cause of death of children.
Shockingly children as young as five years old are committing suicide.
Statistics are even higher when we look at how many young people have attempted suicide. Reports reveal 41,000 young people aged 12-17 tried to take their own life on one or more occasions. What is causing our young people to want to stop living? What devastating circumstances are they experiencing that make them want to end their lives?
The link between cyber-bullying and suicide
Although cyber-bullying may not be connected to all suicides, cyber-bullying often has been found as a major contributing factor in many youth suicide tragedies.
As the death of Amy “Dolly” Jayne Everett and thousands of young suicides across the globe highlight, cyber-bullying not only affects a person’s mental and physical health. It can be deadly. Cyber-bullying often leads to feelings of shame and loss of self-esteem. The fact that it can happen anywhere and there is no way to escape it, results in those targeted feeling socially isolated and leaving them with no safe place to go. This sense of hopelessness and anxiety can lead to severe emotional and psychological harms. Young people desperate to escape from being bullied online see no other route than suicide to free them from the pain.
What is cyber-bullying?
According to the Human Rights Commission website, “using the internet, a mobile phone or a camera to hurt or embarrass someone is considered cyber-bullying.” The fact that hurtful comments and threats can be shared far and wide to an extensive amount of people at the quick click of a mouse is what makes cyber-bullying so dangerous. People online can anonymously post whatever they want without consequence with the bully hiding behind false names and profiles (Source: Australian.com).
In 2015, the Australian government set up the Office of the eSafety Commissioner to handle complaints about online misbehaviour. Since its inception the commission has received hundreds of complaints about serious cyber-bullying. In 2016-17 there were a whopping 305 complaints of cyber-bullying, a 63 per cent increase from the previous year.
Although the majority of people who contact the commission with complaints are parents and other adults of the targeted child’s circle of care, complaints made by children themselves increased 44 per cent in 2016-17.
Complaint categories include:
- Nasty comments and/or serious name calling,
- Threats of violence, and
- Offensive or upsetting pictures or videos.
Penalties for cyber-bullying
Cyber-bullying is not just a natural consequence of being part of a wired world. According to the Australian Cybercrime Online Reporting Network, serious online harassment and bullying is a crime under the Criminal Code Act 1995, with a maximum penalty of three years’ prison or a fine of more than $30,000.
The offence of cyber-bullying requires one or more of the following:
- Using the Internet or phone to harass, threaten or offend an individual including using the device to spread messages or posts that can be viewed as offensive and could “cause anger, outrage, disgust or humiliation.”
- Intentionally trying to frighten or threatening to kill someone online via a mobile device, email or online post can have a penalty of 10 years in jail.
- Cyber-stalking an individual with unwanted phone calls, frequent text messages or emails that make the person feel unsafe can result in a maximum penalty of 5 years in jail.
- Logging into another person’s online account without permission and altering their information can fetch 2 years in prison.
- Online defamation of character is punishable by 3 years imprisonment.
- Encouraging someone to kill themselves online can lead to 5 years imprisonment.
Even though it is against the law to use the Internet to harass, stalk, intimidate or threaten anyone in Australia, prosecutions are unfortunately relatively rare. That is why anti-bullying proponents say that schools, work places and sports programs where bullying is known to occur have a responsibility to address and prevent bullying.
Turnbull said society needs to do more to protect young people, but did not make specific suggestions regarding how.
In South Australia the family of another victim has proposed a law that if put in practice would lead to prison terms of up to 10 years for bullying. Legislators are said to be considering it.
In the meantime, the family of Amy “Dolly” Jayne Everett has set up a social media campaign to raise awareness of bullying and harassment including hashtags #stopbullyingnow and #doitforDolly.