There is a correlation between the increase of smartphone use among young people and a rise in mental health issues related to bullying.
That is according to Tasmanian psychologist Lesley Fraser, who has worked as a school psychologist and in private practice for more than 30 years.
Mrs Fraser, who is also the president of the Tasmanian School Psychology Association said in her years in practice she has worked with numerous young people who were both victims and perpetrators of cyberbullying.
“When I first started practising we didn’t have the Internet, and when it did come in, it was more likely for families to only have one computer; often it was placed in the lounge room or somewhere central,” she said.
“Nowadays, young people and adults are always connected, more and more young people are getting access to smartphones at a younger age.”
Mrs Fraser said a draft proposal made by Corrections Minister Elise Archer to take steps to criminalise cyberbullying did not address the complex problem and, as a psychologist, she had concerns about the impacts the criminalisation would have young people.
She said it would be concerning if young children were prosecuted as criminals if they perpetrated cyberbullying under the proposed amendments.
“A 17-year-old doesn’t have full brain development yet and the last part of their brain to develop is the part that helps them to solve problems and think rationally,” she said.
“Until then they also use the part of their brain that is responsible and stores emotion and therefore did not always make rational decisions.”
Mrs Fraser said prosecuting people for cyberbullying when they were young caused problems because young people could not be fully responsible for their actions.
“My concern is if young people are going to be tried as responsible they are going to be tried for something they aren’t able to fully control,” she said.
Draft amendments announced in December by the state government has moved to criminalise cyberbullying.
The amendments are open for public comment until February.
Mental health advocates have raised concern with the amendments as a simplistic way to address the complex issue that is cyberbullying.
They [cyberbullying victims] find it hard to know that their friends have seen this material and have said nothing, or done anything – often out of fear they will become the next victim.”Psychologist Lesley Fraser
Cyberbullying has emerged as a key issue for young people with the rise of technology and smartphones.
However, it is regulated federally by the eSafety Commissioner, who has powers to work with victims to take down offensive material and, in some cases, prosecute those who perpetrate it.
Tasmania’s proposed amendments would move to make cyberbullying, with the intent to cause prolonged harm with digital or online material, a crime under state law.
Mrs Fraser said cyberbullying was a complex issue, but one that could be solved if the whole community got on board.
She said supporting prevention programs was key to addressing the issue, as well as educating the community that they should not allow bullying in any form.
“Part of the problem for young people is not just the bullying itself, but them knowing that their friends, peers, have seen this material online,” Mrs Fraser said.
“They find it hard to know that their friends have seen this material and have said nothing, or done nothing – often out of fear they will become the next victim.”
Mrs Fraser said cyberbullying was a significant issue that impacted on young people’s mental health, but it was not the only one causing problems.
“You will generally see victims of cyberbullying show a reduction in self-esteem, and a reluctance to physically go to school, or wherever the bully might be,” she said.
“It can also undermine their confidence and can lead to depression and anxiety.”
She said young people were also often reluctant to tell their parents, because of their parents’ reactions.
“Parents often react one of two ways – they either go down to the school and tell the principal, so the young person feels embarrassed about the situation; or they take away access to the phone. Both of those things are not what the young person wants,” Mrs Fraser said.
As parents, it is impossible to monitor your child’s phone use at all times, which made the potential for cyberbullying so much more prevalent, she said.
But it was important to note parents needed to ensure they were providing their child with support if cyberbullying occurs.
“When I’m working with a young person who has mental health issues, then it’s really important that we get the parents involved, and the school,” she said.
Mrs Fraser said the increase in cyberbullying and of young people with unrelated mental health issues was a case for the state government to increase school psychologists.
The Tasmanian School Psychology Association has long advocated for an increase in school psychologists in public schools.
“School psychologists are able to do more at a system level and they are already in schools and are best placed to deal with these kinds of issues,” she said.
School psychologists are stretched over regions and Mrs Fraser said some small schools would be lucky to receive a psychologist for half a day or one day a week.
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