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Online bullies to face the music for harassment

 The Big Issue South Africa 09 March 2019

Using cyberspace to taunt, slander, intimidate or harass a person online will soon be illegal under the new Protection from Harassment Bill, which will make “cyber-bullying” punishable under the law and could even land the bully behind bars. (2074 Words) - By Leanne Farish and Tarryn Brien

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The legislation comes not a day too soon for South African teenagers who, according to experts, are increasingly falling victim to this faceless and often vicious form of bullying.

Tlali Tlali, spokesperson for the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, says cyber-bullying is defined in the Bill as, "when electronic media such as the internet, cell phones or other devices are used to bully a person by the sending of text, video or images intended to hurt, intimidate or embarrass another person."

He adds: "Cyber-bullying may consist of remarks of a sexual nature, threats, hate speech, ganging up on victims by making them the subject of ridicule in a forum, and posting false statements as fact, aimed at humiliation, etc."

Free rein to launch faceless attacks

There's been a sharp increase in cyber-bullying in South Africa, coinciding with the rise in popularity of social networking. Although cyber-bullying can take place over all social networking platforms - such as Facebook, MySpace, Mxit and Twitter - it is sites such as the Russian-hosted OuToilet that are the most disturbing.

OuToilet, containing individual forums for different South African high schools, primary schools, colleges and universities, was used to trash individual learners and students. It was closed down after a barrage of complaints. But the respite didn't last long, with a new sister site NuweToilet, hosted by the same Russian web provider, springing up to replace the slander site almost immediately.

Alana Richards*, 14, was a victim of cyber-bullying on OuToilet in June last year when she was labelled a jintu [whore]. "I felt so bad that as soon as I read it I burst out crying at school and ran to the bathroom with my best friend and missed class for the first three lessons. At break when I went out of the bathroom everyone was staring at me," recalls Richards. She still does not know who posted the hurtful comment about her, and has since become suspicious and distrusting of even her closest friends. "I have never been bothered about what people think of me. Now when I go out I double-check what I'm wearing, who I'm seen with and stuff. It's hard to have a good time when worrying what people think of you."

She continues, "Nowadays being a teenager isn't easy. Parents think the only bad thing is pimples, drugs or alcohol. But it's not. I know people who were suicidal because of bullying on Mxit or OuToilet."

What makes sites like NuweToilet so dangerous is that it allows complete anonymity, enabling users to log in under any pseudonym and launch unregulated, faceless attacks. They can also ask specific questions about a particular learner in that school. For example, "Natalie Arendse, Pinetown Girls, does she have a boyfriend? Spoeg my nat mense [tell me everything, people]".

Questions and posts mostly centre around the "target's" relationship status, previous sexual partners or any skinner on the girl or boy, although subjects are usually female. Smear campaigns, hateful comments and the spreading of rumours are routine. Other content is often of a lewd sexual nature, usually including sexual propositions and a cell number or Mxit contact. Naked photographs are often requested or offered.

Easy pickings for sexual predators

More worrying is that online social networks give sexual predators a practically unrestricted platform to prey on young girls and boys, while cloaked in anonymity.

This can lead to some very real life consequences, as in the case of a 15-year-old girl from Jo'burg, who sneaked out the house last August to meet the "teenage boy" she had been flirting with on Mxit. The "boy" turned out to be a 27-year-old man who allegedly drugged and raped her on his smallholding outside Benoni.

The fear of being stalked online by an unknown person can also be terrifying, says Hayley Muller*, 17, who found herself the subject of an OuToilet post. "Someone had asked about me, including information such as my name and address. This scared me. My personal details were on the website for everyone to see…Some of the details about my life were disturbingly accurate. There were details that only a friend would know. It just made me paranoid."

Eva Ramokobala, project manager of Girls' Net, an organisation that aims to raise awareness around cyber-bullying and support girls who are victims of online harassment, stresses the need for legislation to protect vulnerable teens: "Sites such as OuToilet are a serious problem. It is a catalyst for discrimination among young people. It also gives a space for perpetrators of sexual violence against girls, a space where they can commit the act and not feel sorry about. It is enough that kids are not safe enough on the streets - now they are also not safe online as well. There needs to be strict legislation on cyber crimes, for adults and learners."

Tlali says the Protection from Harassment Bill, which has been tabled before parliament and is expected to be implemented sometime this year, recognises cyber-bullying as a serious form of harassment and will be tough on perpetrators.

"The Protection from Harassment Bill aims to provide relief against harassment by means of an order of court [called a protection order], in terms of which the harasser is prohibited from continuing with the harassing conduct," he explains. "A contravention of a condition of a protection order is punishable as a crime for which a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years may be imposed."

Of course, the strength of the legislation, its "user-friendliness" and its effectiveness in protecting teenagers from faceless attacks will only be known once it's put to the test, and that's still some months away at best.

And while the new legislation may offer some relief to victims of cyber-bullying, it's unlikely to prevent the psychological damage that's inevitably inflicted.

No protection against trauma

The short-term effects of cyber-
bullying can include low self-esteem and refusal or reluctance to attend school and humiliation, according to family psychologist Dr Gwen Fisher, who says online harassment is often more traumatising because of the extremely public nature of the bullying.  Exposure online means that the entire world, quite literally, can witness the victim's humiliation.

As cyber-bullying victim Richards says, "Sites like OuToilet ruin people's lives. They don't realise how much one small, even a four word comment, could affect someone's life greatly."

The long-term effects of online harassment are even more severe, says Fisher: "Teenagers present with symptoms of generalised anxiety and depression. Symptoms may include constantly feeling sad, feeling that life is not fun anymore, feelings of worthlessness and even suicidal thoughts and self-mutilating behaviour."

Education is the only solution

After some serious pressure from concerned parents, cellphone network providers Vodacom and MTN blocked access to OuToilet from their networks. However, the site remains accessible from a computer and new sites have sprung up in its place.

The simple fact is that shutting down the sites is not the solution. As Parklands College school councillor, Kim Shloms-Madlener, suggests, "These sites will never disappear, and if they do another one will soon pop up to replace it. I think the only option is to offer reliable information to learners and parents and hope for responsible behaviour. To my mind that's part of the 'growing up' that teens need to do - learning to be accountable for their actions."

She adds: "Learners should be taught awareness of consequences - destroying others' reputations, etc. If schools and parents take a firm, non-negotiable stand on cyber-slander and -bullying I think that it could be curbed."

Fisher also stresses the need for proper counselling to be available to teens: "School counselling is one of the biggest necessities at a school and I hope that the education department will put this in place as a priority, especially in previously disadvantaged schools."

But, with the absence of counselling at many under-resourced schools, this support is either non-existent or is provided by private organisations like Girls' Net, which offers support to victims of cyber-bullying.

"We visited a school in Soweto and we spoke to a young man who had been a victim of cyber-bullying. The learner was homosexual and had been cyber-bullied by his peers in the primary school through the OuToilet website," says Ramokobala. "He said during the incident he did not know where to go for help."

Girls' Net is also taking a pro-active
approach to prevent cyber-bullying through programmes such as "Keep-Your-Chats-Exactly-That!", which aims to raise awareness of the potential dangers of social networking and educate teenagers on how to protect themselves online.

"We want to build a social movement of girls that are empowered through information communication technologies," says Ramokobala.

*Surnames changed on request

SIDEBAR: Cyber-bullying around the world

CANADA

In 2003, Ghyslain Raza from Quebec made a home video of himself wielding a golf ball retriever as a light saber as he pretended to be Star Wars character Darth Maul. Classmates found the tape and uploaded it online. The video became one of the most downloaded clips ever, and soon Raza was being called "the Star Wars Kid". Unfortunately for Raza, the video clip was not a flattering one, showing his lack of athletic skill and his portly figure. Raza was ridiculed and humiliated to such an extent that he dropped out of school and had to be admitted under psychiatric care.

UNITED KINGDOM

Megan Gillan, 15, of Macclesfield, took a fatal dose of painkillers in January 2009 after being harassed and teased online.

- Emily Moore, 18, was cyber-bullied for four years by Keeley Houghton, who even threatened to kill her. In August 2009 Houghton, also 18, pleaded guilty to harassment and was sentenced to three months in prison. She is the first person in Britain to do time for cyber-bullying.

ITALY

In September 2006, three of internet search giant Google's top executives were found guilty of violating privacy laws after a video of an autistic boy being punched and kicked was posted online. The teenage boy had been attacked by four boys at a school in Turin. The executives were each sentenced to a six-month suspended jail term as the website page where the video was posted showcased adverts.

SOUTH KOREA

In 2005, a South Korean learner was dubbed "Dog Poop Girl" after her dog defecated on the subway and she refused to clean it up. Videos, photos and comments were circulated online, until the girl was eventually even harassed in person and had to change schools and move to another part of the country.

UNITED STATES

College student Tyler Clementi, 18, committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge in September 2010 after he was unknowingly filmed having gay sex. The video was published online.

- Megan Meier, 13, from Missouri, committed suicide in October 2006, allegedly as the result of being tormented by a fake MySpace persona created by Lori Drew, the mother of Meier's rival.

- Kylie Kenney, 15, from Vermont became a cyber-bullying victim in 2004 when a website called "Kill Kylie Incorporated" was created, saying that she was gay and that "Kylie must die."

SOUTH AFRICA

The alleged gang rape of a 15-year-old girl at Jules High School in Jeppestown, Johannesburg last November by two fellow learners was filmed on a cell phone and circulated online. The video was offered for sale on OuToilet.

AUSTRALIA

In May 2009 two adolescent girls were forced to leave one of Sydney's elite private schools when they published material on MySpace containing personal and defamatory information about their classmates.

- Allem Halkic, 17, committed suicide in February 2010 after receiving threatening text messages from former friend Shane Phillip Gerada. Gerada, 21, subsequently pleaded guilty to stalking and received an 18-month community-based order.

PHILIPPINES

A 24-year-old woman, identified only as Maria, was harassed by her ex-boyfriend, who posted nude photos and videos of her online. The man also sent copies of the video to her parents.

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Originally published by Spare Change News © www.streetnewsservice.org

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