Stand Strong NZ: 'The fallout is huge' - Kiwi teen's death brings cyberbullying into focus

One in two Kiwi kids is bullied at school, yet most schools claim to have a zero tolerance for bullying. New Zealand has one of the worst rates of bullying in the OECD. How did we get here? And what can we do to change the statistics? Zane Small reports. 

New Zealand is grappling with an online epidemic.

Cyberbullying is costing the country an estimated $444 million a year, according to Netsafe, and it's having a massive impact on youth, which one Northland mother knows only too well.

Summer had just turned 15 when she died after a suspected suicide on June 2 this year. In the lead-up to her death, Summer's mother, Paula Mills, says her daughter was viciously bullied online, and suspects it played a role in her death. 

The harassment started at school for Summer. It began with "teasing and taunting", her mother told Newshub. She would walk down the hallway and "get pushed into a wall and was called names and all sorts of things".

Summer soon developed anxiety and struggled to cope with school. Ms Mills decided to pull her daughter out and enrolled her at Northern Health School, for students who are not attending their school of enrolment due to health or wellbeing needs.

But Summer couldn't escape the bullying - it followed her to her new school, via the internet. The same students who bullied Summer at her Northland school began sending her hateful messages on Facebook. It was detrimental to Summer, who had been diagnosed with depression.

Summer and her mother Paula.
Summer and her mother Paula. Photo credit: Supplied

"I had contacted one of the kids and pleaded with them to stop as I was trying to keep [Summer] alive," Ms Mills told Newshub. "Summer's sister also contacted one of the kids and told her to leave her sister alone. She was angry after Summer showed her some of the messages."

Eventually, Ms Mills says she convinced Summer into blocking the bullies on Facebook, because it was "completely stripping her of all her self-worth and she was not wanting to live anymore".

"She blocked these particular kids on Facebook," said Ms Mills. But two weeks before Summer's death, "somebody, somehow, got through on an anonymous account on Instagram, and away they went again."

In the next couple of weeks leading up to Summer's death, her mother recalls nasty comments appearing on the Instagram posts.

She said Summer couldn't take it anymore. 

The penalties for cyberbullying

Summer's case is still with the coroner and under police investigation.

Ms Mills told Newshub the investigation into her daughter's case could take anywhere up to a year, and the coroner will then decide if there will be charges laid.  

"Not until the investigation is complete will we know whether these kids will be held accountable in any way," she said.  

Senior Police Sergeant Simon King told Newshub it's difficult to narrow down how bad cyberbullying is in New Zealand, because often it starts offline, as it did for Summer. He said he could not comment on Summer's case as it's ongoing.

New Zealanders have protections against cyberbullying under the Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015. It aims to "deter, prevent and lessen harmful digital communications". This includes cyberbullying, harassment and revenge porn posted online.

Stand Strong NZ: 'The fallout is huge' - Kiwi teen's death brings cyberbullying into focus
Photo credit: Newshub

Sending messages or posting material online that is intended to cause harm is punishable by up to two years in prison or a maximum fine of up to $50,000 for adult individuals.

Young people aged 14-16 can also be liable for that offence, but the penalty would be different, said Mr King, a youth specialist. They would be dealt with through the youth justice system, and in low-level cases could be dealt with outside of court. 

"If it was more serious, charges could be laid in the Youth Court," he said. "There are quite a full range of penalties in the Youth Court [including] community-based [penalties], such as community work and having to attend programmes, or right up to custodial sentences."

Stand Strong NZ: 'The fallout is huge' - Kiwi teen's death brings cyberbullying into focus
Photo credit: Newshub

Offences under the Act include inciting others online to commit suicide, which now applies regardless of whether victims attempt to take their own lives. A maximum sentence of up to three years in prison applies for this offence.

The Act established internet safety group Netsafe as an approved agency to assess, investigate and deal with complaints, and introduced a civil court process for serious or repeated harmful digital communications.

A $444 million issue

Netsafe chief executive Martin Cocker says the volume of online bullying is high in New Zealand. He told Newshub one in 10 New Zealand adults say they have been harmed by digital communications, essentially cyberbullying - but that it's worse for youth.

"We know that the rate of youth is twice that - 20 percent of youth, each year, say they're harmed by cyberbullying. It's a significant issue for New Zealand," he said.

A recent report commissioned by Netsafe shows online bullying is costing New Zealand an estimated $444 million a year. The amount is drawn from factors including loss of life and the cost of time and resources spent on victims.

"Social media has given people a new platform to abuse and harass people and it's certainly empowered many," said Mr Cocker. 

"Research shows that online bullying is more harmful - that it's creating a significant long-term effect on people than traditional bullying and harassment."

Mr Cocker admits there are people who are being bullied or harassed online who are not having their issues resolved through the current regulatory framework. He said those issues are "being talked about right now".

"Those are the things that we'll be reporting back to the Government and saying, 'These are areas that you can look at'."

The Government has highlighted mental health as a priority for New Zealanders, having put around $249 million into mental health in Budget 2018. Health Minister David Clark said it's the largest amount of funding allocated in 10 years.

"Supporting mental health services will have a flow-on effect to support the people we look after," said Mr Cocker. "But I think now, in New Zealand, there's a clear understanding that you can invest in prevention and save a lot of money later on."

The extent of cyberbullying

The Ministry of Justice says hundreds of people have been helped by cyberbullying laws in New Zealand. But Summer's story points to a wide range of issues facing the country's youth in regards to online harassment.  

The loss of Summer has impacted her family heavily. Her five brothers and sisters have had their lives turned upside down, and her mother says it's time to bring more awareness to the impact that cyberbullying can have. 

"When kids die it impacts the whole community: the schools, the families, and the aftermath; it's just huge. Prevention is a lot better than ambulances," said Ms Mills.

New Zealand schools need to admit there's an issue in order to find solutions, she told Newhsub, adding that schools are often part of the problem, because a lot bullying issues get "swept under the carpet".

For example, Lower Hutt high school Taita College was recently accused by parents of "not supporting" students who have been told to commit suicide in graffiti written on bathroom walls.

"The problem is that a lot of schools don't want to admit that there's a bullying problem, or they feel that it's not their responsibility, particularly when the cyberbullying is happening outside of school," said Ms Mills.

She said she's pushing to have social and emotional learning added to school curriculum, and to get Netsafe into schools to educate students on the impact of cyberbullying.

"Young people are not learning empathy and the social skills of resilience, and how to deal with conflict and the impact of bullying," she said. 

"Cyberbullying in schools is absolutely rampant and the fallout from it is huge. I know it's huge, because I've lost my daughter to it."

Where to find help and support:

 

Stand Strong NZ is a series exploring the issues around bullying and what's being done to reduce the harm.

Newshub.

Contact Newshub with your story tips:
news@newshub.co.nz