Bullying has been in the headlines of mainstream media recently and reference to this issue in New Zealand schools continues and appears ongoing. The Close Up interview with thirteen year old Tori McCauley, following her meeting with John Key on Friday was incredibly admirable. We would love to find out which of the US programmes she felt would engage students as we too have found some we liked and thought may work in our schools. And she said in her interview, “should this take a thirteen year old to stand up, no”. But her age alone is example again of the significance & relevance of cyber-bullying, the cause we are trying to build awareness of in the viral campaign through the charitable trust launched the same day, Sweet As Social Media.
No doubt Tori is a very grown up thirteen year old, as is the six year old, Shizzi Bowden, who fronted our leading video for the “Be Nice Online” campaign. But it is more than likely, that neither of these kids would know what the “Y2K Bug” is. They have never known a world without the internet. And for those of us who are old enough to remember the dawn of the new millennium, the significance of this in the bigger scheme of things is obvious. While the online world continues to be largely unmonitored and outside the law, these kids are the ones who are at the greatest risk of getting into trouble online.
On 60 Minutes tonight they covered the story of Natalia Burgess, the mastermind of fake online characters she used to con several young men. Natalie Mayberry who the woman portrayed as this fake persona by Natalia for 7 years apparently. Natalie stated in the story that she had naively left her profile settings open which had not helped the situation as Natlia was able to obtain a whole load of photos of her after being at the same bar one night and was snapped in the same shoot thanks to Natalia’s efforts “photo bombing” on the night. This was all that Natalia needed to be able to make it appear the two were “friends” as far as all are concerned online. But from the interview for any of those who didn’t see it, it is pretty clear that Natlia must have some mental heath issues just from the way she was talking alone.
The thing is Natalia is a script writer and hearing her talk about the story was like listening to her describing a play she had written. She even went so far to say things like, “they were the puppets and I was the puppeteer and the audience, I’d pull the strings and then I’d just sit back and watch”. She also made the key point that being online relationships with these boys, she felt that the stories she had made up and the things done were “not real”. Ironically exactually the same stance we all seem to take about things that occur online, despite the fact courts might not agree often depending on the case. In fact the justice system is largely failing the victims that it is set out to protect in these situations and the Police are still struggling to work out if, and for what, they can charge Natalia Burgess. And this is after at least four widely reported key victims who where spoken about in the story and a reported involvement of some 40 other boys from St Thomas School alone being caught up in this twisted web of lies and deceit.
One mother of one of her victims, the one who actually took his online 3 months after Natalia ending their involvement, made an interesting comment, that if this was a man acting in the same way, charges would have been pressed by now. And while she is probably correct in that fact, it also shows just how little influence the law really has in such online issues and incidents. But while it is clear in this case that Natalia Burgess is one “troubled individual”, obvious from her nonchalant attitude to what she had done, she has provided some particularly relevant examples and insight into the kind of risks parents are largely unaware they are leaving their kids open to online. While social networking sites often play to the more sinister side of human nature, it is the near encouragement of this kind of anti-social behavior from some sites that has shocked us.
Predators has always been around, its just that technology and the internet has actually made things easier for some of them. If you still need convincing of this, check out the UK produced campaign video, Consequence on YouTube. Cyberbullying is just one element of these online risks that we know Kiwi kids are currently struggling with. And while parents seem overwhelmed, the official bodies appear largely powerless, we have a thirteen year old on National TV talking about the bullying issue as she is not yet convinced there is nothing she can do about it.