Cyberbullies aren't just targeting children. Adults are falling victim to online smears and the damage can be devastating, writes Amanda Bower.
Michelle, a Western Australian woman in her late 30s, was a bit bewildered the first time she got a Facebook message from herself.
She had set up her profile only a few months earlier and wasn't exactly enamoured with the technology. So when a message appeared in her inbox, urging her to "check this out", she did.
"This", it turned out, was a Facebook profile page set up by a cyberbully. It used a real photo of Michelle and her real name (last names have been removed from this story, to protect victims from further invasions of their privacy).
Michelle reported the fake page to Facebook and a few days later it was removed. Then another one was created. And another.
At first, fake "Michelle" posted about liking various websites and sent friend requests, which were accepted by real Michelle's friends. Yet things escalated rapidly.
Fake "Michelle" started to talk about the kinky sex she was into, including references to children, fruits and animals. She sent lewd messages to members of real Michelle's high school, which had created a Facebook group for its 20-year reunion.
And, finally, fake "Michelle" posted that she was having a party and was prepared for "anything" — and gave out real Michelle's address.
We read all the time about how horrible and how horribly common online bullying is among today's technology-savvy children.
According to federal government statistics, one in 10 kids are victims, although in a Girlfriend magazine survey, an alarming 42 per cent of 13,300 teen readers said they'd been cyberbullied. Tragically, a number of teen suicides have been attributed to online abuse.
Although there are no reliable statistics on the prevalence of adult cyberbullying in Australia, the experience of Michelle and countless others shows that grown-ups are also victims. In almost all cases, experts say, the perpetrator knows the victim.
Under federal telecommunications laws passed in 2004, using a "carriage service" — email, text, mobile phone — to harass someone can leave you sitting behind bars for up to three years, with an automatic criminal record.
Yet, despite an increasing number of adult cyberbullying cases making headlines, there are many more victims suffering in silence, says Susan McLean, who was Victoria Police's first cyber safety officer and is now an online safety consultant.
She says she regularly gets emails from adult victims saying, "You know, it's not just a kid problem. I'm being harassed terribly."
Yet many are too embarrassed or afraid to seek help. And adults, Susan says, "often feel more powerless because they don't have confidence with the technology. They've never had to experience it before, it's very confronting for them and they are often floundering."
Even if you do try to set the record straight, some people may not get the message, says Michelle.
"I'm really a boring person and I thought people would know it wasn't really me," she says.
Yet, despite Michelle posting repeatedly that her identity had been stolen, some people missed those messages — and were really offended by fake "Michelle's" communications.
"They used my real photo, they used my real name and if it walks and talks like a duck, some people are going to think it's a duck," Michelle says.
After numerous complaints to Facebook, the bully's computer was finally blocked from creating another Facebook account, at least under Michelle's name.
Although she had contacted police, she says it took many weeks for them to get back to her and when they finally did, the pages had been taken down and the police said there was no need for action.
Yet Michelle has taken action in her own, important way. "As soon as it happened, I started talking with friends and family, saying, 'You need to be really vigilant about what information you put out there, because you can be targeted'."
Read more of this story in the June issue of The Australian Women's Weekly.
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