What are we doing to our children?
By Caroline Overington, The Australian, 8 December, 2017.
A little girl called Dolly who was once the face of Akubra has taken her own life after being cyber-bullied. She was 14.
Look at her, not only in the picture that was taken for a Christmas campaign when she was six, but in those that were displayed by her devastated parents at her service yesterday, smiling shyly as she walks along with her horse in her dusty boots and her low-slung jeans.
You want to sweep her up into your arms and run, and keep on running.
You want to tell her: hey, it’s OK. These people who are tormenting you, they’re not important. You’re important. To your mum and dad and your sister; to the red dust and the blue sky and the brown rivers that traverse this, your outback home.
But it’s too late.
When the news of Dolly’s death was reported in The Australian this week, one letter writer said: “My granddaughters, aged eight and six, said: what did she do wrong? I said she was sad because some people said nasty things about her. ‘Why?’, they said. ‘She looked so friendly, why would anyone do that?’ Could someone tell me what to tell them?”
Yes, what are we supposed to tell them?
That we didn’t know what we were doing when we opened the door to this brave new world of tweets and “likes”, Facebook updates; that we thought it would be fine, and maybe even fun.
That we did not understand the vicious and viscous nature of it; how it would come to fill our homes, until bile was pouring from the windows; that it would creep into our children’s bedrooms; that it would be there when they tried to sleep at night and still there when they woke in the morning; that it would fester and blister in their pockets on the bus; that it would fertilise a sense of dread, amplified a thousand times in the form of shared messages and group bullying; that even as we told them they were well-loved and doing OK, every feed in their stream would be reminding them that, actually, they’re fat and their life is not fun, and they do not have many friends and ha ha ha, because everyone else does.
What have we done?
Dolly as the six-year-old face of Akubra.
With Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, WhatsApp, Snapchat, all that junk, what have we done? We have opened a window for our kids to see the kind of things we never saw, because whatever the perversion, social media has absolutely got you covered: women degraded in vile pornography, their bodies cut up, or starved by anorexia, predators attacking children, animal torture, revenge porn. Last January, a 12-year-old girl Facebook-streamed her own hanging from a tree. The clip stayed online for eight hours, and you could stay and read the comments: “Look, her legs are twitching!”
It’s a swamp, a sewer, and this poor sweet girl — Amy Jayne Everett, known to family as Dolly, from the spiritual plains of the Northern Territory — has drowned in it, and can’t you see her now, crouching down as the waters closed in around her, finding no way out?
Just one way out. In the days before her death, Dolly drew a harrowing sketch of a tortured young girl, urging people to “speak up although your voice shakes”. That sketch formed part of the service, held at her local primary school yesterday. Dolly’s parents, Tick and Kate Everett, and her sister Meg, invited those who tormented Dolly to come along and see the utter devastation.
“We are not concerned with the who or the why of who pushed our daughter to this point,” Dolly’s parents said. “We just want to save another family going through the sadness and tragedy that our family is experiencing.”
An illustration completed days before Dolly took her own life.
Images shown on the screen included Dolly having a fun time with a pony, with sunglasses on its head. Dolly by the river, with a horse by the reins. Then an empty swing against the pink sky, and these words: “Don’t let this happen to anyone else … Speak up, stand up, stop it now.”
Of course suicide is not uncommon in Australia, and yet the loss of this one girl from the Top End has shaken the nation, and it is worth asking: why does Dolly’s death so resonate? Because, look at her. That open face. That shy smile. To look at Dolly is to see an Australia that barely exists anymore: a place that was carefree and spirited. And now it seems that she is shining down over us, a symbol of all that we’ve lost, including our own uncomplicated childhoods.
She was 14. That’s the bit you can’t shake.
The thing is, the social media companies, they know what they’re doing. They know their product is horrific. They know that they are putting previously restricted, entirely unedited content into the hands of children, and they know they’re giving kids the tools to take their lives. Just last week, a so-called YouTube “star” — a tousle-haired blond dude called Logan Paul, who has six million followers — went snickering with his camera crew into a Japanese forest famous for its suicides, where they came upon a swinging body. He filmed it. No, he really did. He uploaded the video of the corpse for his pre-teen fans, without any age restrictions. Kids were watching. Millions of them.
This is new media. The clip soon came down, but YouTube waited 10 days to respond, saying they were going to clip Logan’s wings by not letting him be part of their extra-special money-making channel any more.
“Suicide should never be a driving force for views … That body was a person someone loved,” the company said.
You don’t say.
Tick Everett comforts a small girl at the service.
In years to come we may well look back, amazed that an entire generation — us, the parents — allowed our kids to have access to these things, via their phones, because we thought: what’s the harm? It makes it so much easier to stay in touch with them. I feel better, as a parent, knowing they’ve got a phone. What we got instead of security is what one Harvard University study has described as a “growing public health crisis” of smartphone addiction, triggering suicide. Researchers at Tel Aviv University say the problem is that Facebook can cause people to feel their lives don’t measure up to those of others and, big surprise, “the effect is especially pronounced in young people”.
Social networks make us miserable. Like tobacco causes cancer, social media causes depression, and depression is a potentially fatal illness. And like the cigarette companies, Facebook, Google, all those guys, may one day be held to account. They are already nervous. Two Apple shareholders whose institutions together hold more $2 billion worth of Apple stock last week wrote publicly to the company, warning executives to take seriously the mounting studies — from Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital and San Diego State University — that have found children using digital technologies are more prone to suicide.
A former Facebook vice-president, Chamath Palihapitiya, last week told an audience at Stanford that he suffers from “tremendous guilt” for even creating the platform, and as for his kids, they “aren’t allowed to use this shit”.
In the face of rising concern, Apple this week issued its own statement — they do love statements, these companies — saying it “has always looked out for kids … since 2008 the iPhone’s software has allowed parents to control which apps, movies, games and other content children can access”.
What does that even mean? Because what can parents really do? The devices are everywhere. They’re in the playground. Your child may not have one, but sure as hell somebody does. It’s pervasive, and poisonous, and the content is not like old media. It is not edited. There are no rules.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, in a statement of his own, pledged last week to “fix” Facebook by “making sure that time spent on Facebook is time well spent”.
Er, by this, does Zuckerberg — in fairness, a young father himself, riding a tiger he created in college that has grown to the size of the known universe — expect us to believe that Facebook does not know who among its users is prone to suicide? This is a company that knows how much you earn, and where you long to go on holidays, and what you Google in your darkest hours. They can’t tell which kids are at risk of suicide?
Of course they can, and if they really can’t, they should get one of those 20,000 super-smart IT guys they employ — maybe the one now busy designing a new sunglass-wearing emoji — to find out.
Like, now. Because social media is destroying us.
Speak to parents of teenagers. They all have the same stories: desperate mums and dads sleeping on the floor of the traumatised teenager’s bedroom; or pushing the door open in the morning, not sure what they might find.
Yes, I know. Let’s not get emotional. Let’s be rational: suicide is still rare for girls aged 14 and under, at 0.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2016. But like a plague, it’s spreading: according to Lifeline, suicide is now the leading cause of death of children between five and 17 years of age; the suicide rate for 15 to 24-year-olds is at the highest in 10 years; the number of teenage girls who die by suicide has risen by 20 per cent since 2015.
Who feels rational, in the face of this calamity?
She was 14. Just 14.
We must do something, but what can we do? From the mental health experts, the message is simple enough: try to put some limits on social media, but also encourage your kids to be kind.
Ask for help if you need it, and ask others if they need it. Sometimes it’s a matter of helping a child put a few minutes together to make an hour; a few hours to make a day; a few days to make a week; a few weeks to make a month, and now we’re at the six-month mark, and let’s just keep going, running as fast as we can from the scourge that is depression.
Other times, we know we just won’t be able to reach them. You can stretch your hand in their direction, you can implore them to see the good in the world, and they will remain beyond your grasp.
And that is what has happened here. There was no lack of will to keep Dolly alive, not among those who loved her. There was just an all-encompassing hopelessness settling on a sweet kid from cattle country who in the end could not find a bridge between the agonising place in which she found herself and that place where we all so much need her to be: here at home, in the heart of her Australian family, which wakes this morning to find that she is not here.
You are not alone. If you are thinking about suicide or experiencing a personal crisis, help is available. Phone Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467.