The loss of a child is something that no family should have to endure. When that loss follows persistent and systemic bullying – of the kind Libby Bell suffered – the desire to punish those responsible is perfectly natural.
Recent calls for new laws criminalising cyberbullying are understandable responses from those who make and enforce the law. But will a new criminal offence prevent this from happening to another child?
Before implementing criminal reforms – especially those affecting the rights of children – we should ask ourselves some searching questions. The first is whether imposing the label of ‘criminal’ on a child who has bullied a peer is appropriate and proportionate. This is especially true when considering the maximum ten year prison sentence imposed by Brodie’s Law.
The second is whether criminal sanctions will be effective in acting as a deterrent. Would such laws actually prevent a teenager from sending an abusive tweet or menacing text? Will it protect a cyberbullying target before the damage is done?
Our challenge is that cyberbullying is the technological extension of behaviours that are all too typical within groups of children and young people. Cyberbullying is, in my view, a social and behavioural issue, and as a society we need to focus on broad cultural change. This involves inculcating into our young people a clear understanding that bullying, in all its forms, is unacceptable.
The corollary to this message ought to be that we all - parents, educators and policymakers – have a role in combatting online abuse. Early intervention is key to our success in executing this role, with prevention and education strategies working to supplement pathways to assistance and relief. I believe that intervention starts in the home, with parents empowered with the knowledge and skills to help their children when something goes dreadfully wrong online.
Respectful online communication also needs to be taught consistently across the curriculum. With children as young as eight engaging in social media, it has never been more important to impart skills and tools for children to be resilient and respectful digital citizens.
Most importantly, through the eSafety Office, Australians have access to a world-first reporting scheme to deal with serious cyberbullying affecting children. We serve as a safety net for young people who have not been able to find a resolution through a social media service’s reporting tools. Because we know that online abuse is often an extension of what’s happening at school, we take a whole-of-community approach to helping young Australians resolve these cyberbullying incidents.
To effect this change we work with the social media services themselves to take content down. But, recognising the complex social drivers behind cyberbullying, we also engage when appropriate with educators, parents and police. By involving the whole community, we help young people reach the best solution for their particular situation.
Our work is strengthened by outstanding support services, like Kids Helpline. Such services are another integral piece of the puzzle in helping young people deal with the hurt and distress they are feeling. It is important that young people know they are not alone. If they don’t feel comfortable speaking to their parents or a trusted adult, there is support available free of charge, and confidentially, 24/7.
As a community, we should aim to intervene and stabilise a cyberbullying incident before the need for criminal sanctions, and before it escalates to the point that a victim sees no way out.
If we are to prevent Libby Bell’s tragedy from happening to other families around Australia, a multi-faceted approach needs strong consideration. We encourage all Australians to seek out our educational resources and tools at www.esafety.gov.au and to report serious cyberbullying on social media to our Office. This complicated societal issue requires more prevention, early intervention and pathways to relief before laws are applied retroactively or are viewed, in isolation, as a panacea.
A version of this op-ed originally appeared in The Advertiser.