When Rachel Downie was announced as Queensland’s Australian of the Year for 2020, she was flooded with messages of congratulations. The Buderim anti-bullying and suicide prevention educator was overwhelmed with kindness. But one letter took her off guard. It came from someone who had bullied her at school.
The woman wrote: “You’ll probably remember me as being an unkind and hurtful person at school. Over the years I’ve realised the things I’ve done were harassment and bullying and were wrong. My daughter has been bullied and the impact on our lives has been unimaginable. Rachel, I know I can’t take it back. I’m so sorry. I have no idea how you faced school on those days.”
“When I was in year nine, this girl was a ringleader of a group who made my life a living hell,” says Ms Downie. “Not one person stood up for me. But I fixed it with kindness. Every time they were revolting to me, I was nice to them, which eventuated in them leaving me alone. When they said I was f***ing ugly and called me a ‘downie dog’, I used to say to them, ‘I wish I was as cool as you, but I’m not’. When they said, ‘when you come to school tomorrow, we’re going to bash you’, I said, ‘does someone hit you?’. I had a fair bit of family trauma and I recognised she was a hurt person. Hurt people, hurt people.
“I cried a lot,” she adds. “My home life was bad as well and I had to use all my resilience to manage my home life. If I’d had cyberbullying mashed on top, I don’t know if I would have managed.”
Ms Downie has been a teacher for 26 years, a profession she pursued because she wanted to help young people flourish. But when a student in her community took his life, her life took a drastically different turn. She felt compelled to help and created Stymie, an anonymous online reporting system for use in schools internationally.
Now, she travels the country talking to young people about the devastating effects of bullying – and in particular, cyberbullying. She has spoken to more than 300,000 students in the past five years, having visited 83 schools in 2019 and 121 in 2018.
She is devastated that cyberbullying has become such a major problem that young people are taking their own lives at an alarming rate. According data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, suicide was the leading cause of death among people aged 15 and 44 in Australia in 2018. In 2017, 180 people aged under 19 died by suicide and 24 of those deaths were children younger than 14.
In April last year, a Queensland father spoke out about the effects of bullying after he saved his 12-year-old son from a suicide attempt. The father, who remained anonymous, admitted he had failed to read the signs and wanted his family’s ordeal to serve as a warning to others.
“It’s devastating,” says Ms Downie. “Schools are struggling. Mention any social media platform, like Snapchat or TikTok and they can’t even put into words how complicated it has made their job.
“We’ve never had this experience where we’re having a relationship through instant sent words. We are letting kids communicate and form relationships in a space that they need to be emotionally intelligent and they need to be able to process consequence. Boys’ and girls’ brains are ready to take on emotion and the development intricacies of consequences by the age of 21 to 25.
“So essentially, we’re letting kids into a grown-up world and letting them manage that with minimal parental supervision and we wonder why we’re struggling. On a school front, we’re dealing with it when it has already created shame and done damage. And it has a massive effect, not just in dealing with one student, but dealing with an entire year level and sometimes an entire school.”
Stymie, the website Ms Downie created, allows students to anonymously report incidences of cyberbullying. The platform encourages bystanders to step in and do the right thing and stand up for their peers. It has led to real change – including prosecution of students found to be engaging in cyberbullying – and Ms Downie being named the 2020 Queenslander of the Year.
“Parents are shocked when I tell them their child is legally responsible for everything they do from the age of 10,” says Ms Downie.
Telecommunication offences are the same throughout Australia and are governed by the Criminal Code Act. Section 474.17 of the Criminal Code Act 1995 states that using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend is punishable and carries a maximum penalty of three years’ imprisonment. Children from the age of 10 can be sent to a juvenile detention centre for cyberbullying. If the eSafety Commissioner finds an instance of cyberbullying to be serious enough, it will refer the perpetrator to the police.
“What we are trying to teach kids is hey, if what you are doing to that child is deemed as harassment, that is an unlawful act. If the parents or child decide to go to police, you could end up with a criminal charge against your name. Good luck applying for a part-time job.
“You won’t be able to get your own mobile phone contract or internet contract. It is absolutely going to come back and bite them in the future. Often when we tell parents this law exists and your children are responsible for everything they say and do from the age of 10, most parents say, ‘I need to rethink things’.”
At the heart of Stymie is an appeal to the social conscience of bystanders – those who are seeing cyberbullying taking place and while they may not want to ‘rat’ on their friends, they could help save a life.
In addition, brain science is now showing it’s not just victims of cyberbullying that are impacted, but bystanders as well.
In December, Dr Larisa McLoughlin from the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) published a world-first study in the respected journal Human Brain Mapping that looked at how the brain responds to cyberbullying. A USC Postdoctoral Research Fellow specialising in youth mental health, she studied the brains of 32 participants between the ages of 18 and 25 using advanced MRI at the Sunshine Coast Mind and Neuroscience – Thompson Institute and found the brain is affected even by witnessing cyberbullying occurring to someone else.
“The brain responds to social pain, for example being excluded online, in the same way as it does to physical pain,” says Dr McLoughlin.
“It appears cyber-bystanders go through a complex series of emotional processing, including sadness and self-awareness, as well as hate and empathy,” she says. “This indicates that the negative impacts of cyberbullying reach a far wider audience than just the cyberbullying victim.”
Dr McLoughlin also found that females have a greater response in the brain region that plays a key role in the processing of empathy. “Females may be more empathetic cyber-bystanders than males, or more able to regulate their emotions,” she says.
Dr McLoughlin says the findings also aid better understanding of the behaviours of those who defend online abuse, and those who do not.
“Online bystanders play a much more complicated role than those who witness bullying in person,” she says. “They not only have the power to contribute to bullying others by forwarding cyberbullying posts, they can be with the cyberbully when the post is made, with the cyber-victim when it is received, or witness the sharing and forwarding of bullying posts.”
Ms Downie says her school talks are aimed at encouraging students to be kinder people.
“All too often we keep blaming the social media platform and blaming the devices for the behaviours. Granted, those devices allow that behaviour to be perpetrated in a way we’ve never experienced. Yes, the devices need to be monitored until maturity, but these behaviours have always existed.
“What I like to leave kids with after every workshop is to be the kind of person who leaves a mark, not a scar. You don’t have to like that person you are seeing who is being bullied, isolated, dehumanised, but they are a human being and you have a duty to help them and if you don’t, there is a cost – and it’s a human cost.”
What is cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is defined as an aggressive, repeated, intentional act carried out on an individual using electronic forms and can have serious impacts on mental health.
Cyberbullying behaviour might include:
- abusive texts and emails
- hurtful messages, images or videos
- imitating others online
- excluding others online
- humiliating others online
- spreading nasty online gossip and chat
- creating fake accounts to trick someone or humiliate them.
IF YOU NEED HELP
- Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 (available 24/7, for young people between five and 25)
- eHeadspace 1800 650 890 (available 8am to midnight, every day, for young people between 12 and 25)
- Lifeline 131 114 (available 24/7, for all ages)
- QLife 1800 184 527 (available 3pm to midnight, every day, for all ages)
- 1800RESPECT 1800 737 732 (available 24/7, for all ages)
If you, or someone you know, is in immediate danger, call the police on 000.
Get legal advice. If you are being cyberbullied, there are things you can do to protect yourself. In serious cases you might be able to take legal action against the person. Youth Law Australia offers free legal advice. Talk to a friend, parent or trusted adult or report the bullying to the police or the eSafety Commissioner. It is important to collect evidence, for example, screenshots, posts and emails. Visit the eSafety Commissioner’s website for guidelines on how to collect evidence.
Take steps to stay safe online. There are steps you can take to stay safe online and to stop people contacting or bullying you, for example by blocking or unfriending people who upset you and keeping your privacy settings private.
For more information visit:
eSafety Commissioner: esafety.gov.au
Australian Cyber Security Centre: cyber.gov.au/report
What can I do if I see cyberbullying?
If you know someone who is being cyberbullied or have seen cyberbullying, it is important you don’t join in, forward or share material or comment on anything. This could get you into trouble, as well as making things worse for the person being bullied. It is best if you leave any conversations or group chats if people are being nasty about someone. Report the bullying at stymie.com.au.
What can parents do?
Rachel Downie says parents need to be the gatekeepers of their children’s online lives. “Parents say ‘everyone’s on Snapchat and if we don’t let her on Snapchat she’ll be left out’. We’re letting kids run the show. The other comment we receive from parents is the reason my child got cyberbullied is because I don’t understand how it works.
“In terms of protecting kids against any kind of online harm is, your knowledge equals their safety.”
Ms Downie warns parents against confiscating phones as a knee-jerk reaction to cyberbullying, saying it isolates the child. “You need to go in as an educated and informed parent who has a really great sense of balance around who they’re engaging with and what they’re engaging with. As they get older, you hope you’ll be in that land with them less and less because you’ve taught them some good cyberwellness habits growing up.
“Parents are the ones with the most leverage with the kids, but the least investment in ensuring that the kids are operating in a humane way. One of the things I worry about is parents are subliminally encouraged into thinking, well she’s in her bedroom, she’s safe isn’t she?”
Ms Downie advises parents to ensure their children are using maximum levels of privacy on their devices and only interacting with people they know. “Before you let your kids go online, you need to know they know how to make healthy relationships. You need to arm them with a script in terms of being a bystander or a target of harmful actions.”
Ms Downie says it’s crucial for parents to talk to their children where the promise if something happens to them on the internet, they can tell their parents about it. It’s imperative parents stay calm, don’t cause a scene and don’t retaliate. “If your child has been cyberbullied you need to be calm, collect all the facts you can and report it to the platform. If it’s relevant, report it to the school.
“One hundred per cent of the time, when kids have been the targets of harm or the perpetrators of harm, the parents had no idea it was happening until it had escalated to a point that was serious.”