First published in Metro Magazine, New Zealand, 2012 by Leilani Tamu in collaboration with artist Janet Lilo
I was twelve, going on thirteen, when I had sex for the first time. The guy was eighteen. My parents were pretty horrified. They had hoped that they would have a few more years before I ‘crossed over’ into the world of adulthood. Little did they know the worst was yet to come: it wasn’t long before I started smoking weed, drinking and tagging.
My parents tried everything they could think of to try and get me to respect their authority. They even tried using an old Samoan tradition which involved cutting off my hair as a mark of shame. Unfortunately, for all of us, it had the opposite effect. I ran away from home: three times.
There were a lot of factors that led to my behaviour. Most of my closest friends – all from broken homes – were having sex, smoking weed and drinking too. My mum had just gotten engaged to my step-father and I struggled with that at the time (although we’ve got a great relationship now). And it’s true that I enjoyed the attention from older, good looking, guys. The other factor was that I was bullied at school. I remember older girls threatening to beat me up, stealing my school bag and calling me names in front of other kids.
Life was pretty crappy for me back then. And I did some pretty bad things, but I wasn’t a bad person. I was just a messed-up kid who felt misunderstood. But for a really long time, both during and after this period, I believed that I was a bad person. That I deserved the punishment I got and that maybe the world would be a better place without me in it. For years, the thought of suicide was never far from my mind. Luckily for me, I didn’t have the added pressure of social media to add to the mix. Facebook didn’t exist back then and the internet had only just become accessible.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for troubled teens today. The Amanda Todd case speaks volumes about the impact of cyber-bullying on already pressured teens. Todd, a Canadian who was harassed and bullied as a result of a rash act when she was thirteen, committed suicide in October. Sadly, even after Todd’s tragic suicide, the nasty taunts and ‘slut slagging’ continued to be posted on her Facebook page. Even scarier is that these messages were eerily reminiscent of the same taunts she had received on her Facebook page after her first, unsuccessful, suicide attempt. At that time, she tried to kill herself by drinking bleach. After finding out about it, kids at her school posted messages on her Facebook page suggesting that she try another brand, as she might have been more successful.
After reading about the Todd case I decided to make some inquiries about similar instances of cyber-bullying related teen suicides that have occurred in Auckland in recent months. To my surprise, a close relative (who is still at secondary school) was able to tell me about three that have occurred in just the last six weeks.
After doing a preliminary search online I soon discovered that reviewing New Zealand media articles was pointless. This is because New Zealand legislation restricts the media from being able to publish any details relating to suicide cases. Apparently the rationale behind this is to avoid inciting copy-cat suicide attempts. The irony is that social media completely undermines the intention and purpose of the law. I know this because when I looked up the individuals names on Facebook I quickly and easily found their R.I.P memorials sites – all of which have thousands of ‘likes’. What was even more concerning was that, similar to the Todd case, it didn’t take me long to find evidence of cyber-bullying taking place, even after the person’s death. In this instance, someone wrote “R.I.P. in Hell” which was then backed up by a number of similarly vicious comments.
Trying to effectively unpick these issues and come up with strategies to address them is no easy feat. But in this instance I do agree with Prime Minister Key’s public position on one thing we should do: lift the restrictions on media suicide reporting. If New Zealand media aren’t able to freely report on this issue, how is the general public supposed to recognise it as being a significant problem? We all have a responsibility to be alert to bullying in whatever form it takes, no matter what our views are on how the victims of bullies should or shouldn’t conduct themselves.