Johannesburg – After three years of being constantly bullied and harassed, Nicole Fox Fenlon had enough.
She texted her mother Jackie Fenlon for the last time. “I love you, with all my heart. I’m doing all this for Nicole, so others don’t suffer the way I did.”
The 21-year-old from Ireland then took an overdose of pills. She was rushed to hospital and spent several days on life support before she was pronounced dead.
Fenlon had been physically and mentally bullied for three years. “They never gave her a minute’s peace,” her mother Jackie said in news reports.
“They stubbed cigarettes out on her, they pulled her down the stairs by her hair when she was in a nightclub. They punched her and kicked her in the face.”
The mental torture was the worst. “They made up a fake page to post abuse online, making out like she was sleeping around. After they beat her up they said they would put her on a life support machine, and they got their wish because she did end up on life support. They told her, ‘Why don’t you kill yourself? Slit your wrists. Everybody hates you’.”
While the shocking case made headlines, it isn’t rare. This week, South Africans were confronted with a local case: a 13-year-old girl from Pretoria North who took her own life after she was bullied on WhatsApp for over a week.
It is alleged that a Grade 7 learner threatened to distribute a “naughty video” of the deceased Grade 6 learner online. The traumatised girl reported the alleged bullying to her teachers but on Monday, she hanged herself.
Her mother, Lina Thibane, discovered her daughter’s lifeless body near the kitchen in their home. “I’m in pain. She was my best friend,” she told the Pretoria News.
Cyberbullying has become increasingly prominent in South Africa over the past few years. A recent study by UK consumer tech review firm, Comparitech, ranked South Africa fifth out of 28 countries among a percentage of parents who reported children being victims of cyberbullying, trailing India, Brazil, the US, and Belgium.
“We’ve been getting more and more calls about cyberbullying, and it has been a contributing factor to children’s or teens depression and suicide,” said Cassey Chambers, the operations director of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.
“With the boom in social media, technology, internet, access to smartphones – and the movement of ‘online’ – more teens are online. Unfortunately, the downside is that more and more teens (and even children) are becoming victims of cyberbullying.”
Sarah Hoffman, director at the Digital Law Company, said her firm was inundated with requests for help from children. It recently dealt with a case involving an 11-year-old Joburg girl who attempted suicide after her nude pictures were posted on social media.
The girl met a boy at a party. Two days later he started begging her for nude pictures. He asked 57 times, promising he would never show them to anyone. Eventually, she relented.
He shared her naked photo with all his friends on social media. “One of the greatest challenges with distributing nudes is once something is out there, it’s out there – the internet is like a tattoo that way. It’s very difficult to have something permanently removed,” said Hoffman.
“In this particular instance, we sent the young man responsible (who was 12) a legal letter of demand requesting an immediate apology; that he provide us with a list of everyone to whom he has distributed the content; that he immediately delete the content from all his devices and that he provided a written undertaking that he would not distribute the content further.
“When it comes to asking for or distributing nudes, where the subject is under 18, there are also criminal offences relating to child pornography which apply.”
Legally, action can be taken, said Hoffman. “If you know the identity of the bully, and the bullying is sufficiently severe to the extent that it can be said to cause you mental, emotional or psychological harm, one mechanism is to apply for a protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act.
“Almost all social media platforms have a reporting function which allows the possibility for damaging content to be removed. Finally, the Cybercrimes Bill which will hopefully become law soon, has codified a lot of crimes relating to online activities.”
Liane Lurie, a clinical psychologist, said one of the worrying factors about cyberbullying and bullying was that many teens were afraid to speak out about it.
“They may worry that if they take action, the bullying may become worse. The shame associated with the bullying may also be too much to bear.
“The lies, rumours and sensationalist ideas created around the individual have the potential to destroy not only their sense of self but also their reputation.”
How can parents help their children avoid cyberbullying?
Paul Bischoff, the editor of Comparitech, says parents are the first line of defence.
“Consider limiting time spent on social media, where most cyberbullying occurs. Parents can install parental monitoring software on their children’s devices to keep track of what they do online and block content accordingly.
“Alternatively, parents can sign up for the same social networks as their kids and add them as friends, which helps to rein in what kids post and allows parents to keep an eye on them from a distance.”
Sarah Hoffman, of the Digital Law Company, advises the following:
Education: “Create a safe space for your children to be able to speak to you. In the event that they mess up, or that they are the victims of cyberbullying, you want your kids to feel comfortable enough to approach you immediately.”
Limits: “Mobile phones and the apps we use are designed to be addictive. If you as parents don’t put some limitations in place, the default is that our kids will use these around the clock, increasing the chances of exposure or engagement with harmful content.
“A preferable option is to create a Smartphone contract between you and your child outlining how and when these devices are used.”
Hoffman’s firm has created a free downloadable smartphone contract.