Online bullying: won’t somebody think of the children?

by Tim Batt

Charlotte_Dawson_(8050033628)Get your pitchforks, light up those torches and pack your bags kids cause apparently there’s a bandwagon to jump on and it’s called Condemning Online Bullying.

TVNZ’s video montage today of hosts and newsreaders reading awful messages they’ve received from faceless members of the public irked me. It irked me because I think in the wake of a tragic death of a person who lived in the spotlight, the circumstances are being subverted this way and that to serve everyone’s preferred message. Sally Ridge singled out a NZ Herald gossip columnist as a major contributor, meanwhile a different Herald staffer seemed to muse (quite mindlessly and callously) that ageing was to blame. TVNZ has joined many media organisations in blaming the big, bad INTERNET.

There’s something about the public conversation about online bullying that seems awfully familiar. To me, it smacks of the non-stop arguments during the late 90s to 00s about how gaming was going to destroy the social fabric and morals of an entire generation who, if you listened to the news, were pathological shut-ins, locked to a gaming console, rather than social butterflies playing jump rope and hoops that their dear old parents were.

Online bullying is real and I am loath to minimise its importance. The studies (and there are many) show some horrible trends of both the prevalence and effects of online bullying. But much of the media coverage is ignoring the fact that suicide is caused by mental illness, by clinical depression and by myriad other medical conditions of the mind. Bullying has always existed. It is an admirable thing to try and stamp it out and protect the victims, particularly the young and vulnerable but the reason TVNZ’s doe-eyed video irked me so much is because I think when you are in the spotlight, you make choices and trade offs.

When you have a level of fame and notoriety that affords being recognised on the street, rather large pay packets and a host of special services, products, events and experiences that come with being famous, you are making a trade. I am in the media, not to the extent of daily television personalities but I have received my fair share of death threats, abusive texts and cruel insults ranging from the idiotic to the creatively sublime. But I accept that that is part of the gig. I have chosen this work and I will take the realistic consequences.

If we are going to martyr our fallen persons of interests to further an agenda, I really think this time it should be about mental health. It should be about the realities of depression. For adults working in the media to cry foul about bullying irks me. It takes away from vulnerable children and teens whose experiences are incredibly isolating and far more horrific than those equipped for the adult world who have chosen the spotlight. It also subverts an important issue which requires our time, resources and attention, particularly in New Zealand.

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Josh February 25, 2014 - 2:32 pm

Although I agree that this tragedy speaks to the cost of mental health, there’s one more aspect to this media frenzy.

The mainstream media will gladly gang up and bully vulnerable people and although Internet abuse is disgusting and problematic, the attitudes of our publishers also contribute to these bullying cultures we have

Ryan February 25, 2014 - 4:07 pm

Completely agree with this, as this has irked me too. Depression still seems to be too big and scary a thought for the media to shine a light on.

Alice Springland February 25, 2014 - 4:27 pm

So you are saying that those ‘who have chosen to be in the spotlight’ must tolerate abuse as a trade off for their chosen profession? Because I strongly disagree. Too often online bullies write cruel and sometimes terrifying things to celebrities online and there is this strange idea that they should just suck it up because they signed a contract. The thing is that of course when you accept a job ‘in the spotlight’ you know there will be a certain level of public interest whether you like it or not. You know that your time will be monopolised by strangers when you are out having dinner with your partner and you accept that. You know that groups of teenagers might scream and throw things at you in the street. You know that people will come up to you in the supermarket to tell you that you’ve put on weight or that they hate your hair. But as a woman, there are some terrifying things about public exposure that no amount of money will compensate for. The men who write online what they would do to you if they saw you out at a bar. And let me tell you, in their versions it’s barely ever consensual. Or the men in bars or restaurants who wait until they are absolutely off their faces to grab you on your way to the bathroom and touch you in ways that make you want to vomit and use language towards you that is disgusting and vile.

When I first started working in a ‘high exposure’ job I agreed with you. I rolled my eyes when people complained about trolls. I ignored the bullies calling me ugly, fat etc, because I felt that I had to. That accepting money meant I had no right to be hurt and no right to me frightened of these people. But it got harder and harder. Because peoples ‘opinions’ are often abuse. And no amount of money makes up for that. You said you had received death threats, me too. And let me tell you I was scared out of my mind walking from the car into the studio for early morning calls. There’s a gender difference as well. I noticed that the men I was working with did not get targeted nearly as much as the women. Women have other women tearing them down and men wanting to assert dominance often with sexual,or other threats. It’s scary to be a woman ‘in the spotlight’ sometimes. Very scary.

And it’s a question of intent too. If you decided as a kid that you wanted to be a ‘celebrity’ and went about pursing that then of course you would expect a certain level of critique. But if, for example you’ve always loved storytelling and followed it as your passion your whole life in a variety of forms until it lead you to a position where you are ‘in the spotlight’ why should you have to suffer for that. Why should you tolerate abuse and fear because you accepted a pay check to do the thing you’ve always done and trained to do. It’s hard enough to make a living in this industry as it is! Also, I think some people have a strange idea about the amount of money these people actually make……. Contracts are very rarely long term. Exposure is.

I don’t think people ‘in the spotlight’ should feel ashamed to be upset or hurt or scared by online abuse. I think it should be talked about more and then maybe we could all find better ways to deal with it. Yes we know it’s going to happen, it’s a trade off for being able to do such a wonderful job. But abuse is abuse and I don’t like the implication that a pay check (often a short term one) vetos a person’s right to be upset.

Madeline February 26, 2014 - 12:52 pm

Well said, there is a lot of attention being given to the online bullying surrounding this tragic loss when the critical contributor of an ongoing struggle with depression – that eventually clearly overwhelmed all other decision making – is the overriding factor that should be focused on if any good is to come out of this very sad event.

David Peterson February 26, 2014 - 6:17 pm

“There’s something about the public conversation about online bullying that seems awfully familiar. To me, it smacks of the non-stop arguments during the late 90s to 00s about how gaming was going to destroy the social fabric and morals of an entire generation who, if you listened to the news, were pathological shut-ins, locked to a gaming console, rather than social butterflies playing jump rope and hoops that their dear old parents were.”

Too true, and hopefully today everybody who rants on against the social dangers of “violent videogaming” is seen as the prehistoric trilobite that they are!

Cameron February 26, 2014 - 11:47 pm

Thanks Tim. It is a shame that the news media cannot see the hypocrisy in their article, when every other day of the week they are preying on the weak and vulnerable themselves. Bullies are always quick to run crying to the nearest adult when one of the kids bites back.
Bullying is not just an on-line problem, it occurs in every facet of life. Where there is a perceived gain to be made (often it is attention seeking), a bully will try to exert their influence. How do we deal with bullies? We are not going to change the world, but you can change your own.
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Only you can makes yourself feel inferior without your consent”


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