For all the benefits social media offers our 21st century world, there are arguably as many drawbacks. To the psychologically vulnerable, it may even contribute to self-harm or worse still, suicide. In the wake of recent events, Anthony Tan believes a moment or two extra could make the difference between life and death.
7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:38 PM

"Everything seems the same today, the same issues and the same people (all so goddamn annoying). Yet I know from how I am feeling – and these weak, shaky hands, the ones I just want to wring out – that this is a problem of perspective. I need to regain control of my mood, lest this drag on, the black dog of depression barking its negative thoughts louder and louder until my consciousness is backed up against some bare wall in my head. I don't want to be lying under a desk again, desperately trying to interrupt my mind as it mulls over numerous failures, old regrets and pet peeves that seem so insurmountable. I don't want to be still while the world keeps moving."

This is how Sean Parnell, a journalist from The Australian, began his feature article 'Taming The Black Dog', published Friday.

There were two obvious ironies: Parnell was not only the author, but diagnosed with "major depression" two-and-a-half years ago, the subject, too; he was also the paper's health editor.

"In hindsight, it seems so negatively self-indulgent (I have edited out the profanities). Yet, given recent events, perhaps mine is just one of many personal stories that needs to be told," he wrote, doubtless referring to the tragic suicide of media personality and fashion critic Charlotte Dawson last Saturday in Sydney.

I've never watched an episode of Australia's Next Top Model where Dawson was a judge, or The Celebrity Apprentice Australia, or any of the other shows she was on, for that matter, though like me, Dawson, from what I've read, was a colourfully outspoken critic of the industry she derived a income from, ever since she became a model at aged 16 (unlike me, needless to say).

Yet her strength on camera belied her mental fragility. Though I'm guessing this is no different to you or me. Ask yourself this: How different is our (perceived) at-work persona compared to our (real) at-home persona?

In August 2012 she was admitted to hospital after an attempted suicide attempt and suffering depression; a target of an organised online harassment campaign from Twitter trolls, in part a result of her involvement with anti-online bullying initiative, Community Brave. In an interview with New Zealand's Herald on Sunday, she also gave some candid, and admittedly harsh, comments on her former home: "New Zealand is small, nasty and vindictive. It's a tiny, little village... a tiny country at the end of the earth," she said. One of those trolls happened to be an employee at Melbourne's Monash University, Tanya Heti, who repeatedly goaded Dawson in no uncertain terms to "go hang yourself".

A #diecharlotte hashtag was created. Comments included: 'Freedom of speech. Bitch. Hang yourself with love from the US'; 'This whole world hates you... Hypocrite!'; 'Should hang herself. Bitched already caused enough trouble and doesn't deserve that much fame #cocksuckingbitches'; 'FREEDOM OF SPEECH YOU FUCKING BIMBO GO KILL YOURSELF'; 'Kill yourself you putrid piece of shit'.

Those truculent trolls got to her. Even if you didn't suffer from depression, surely, remarks such as these, over a prolonged period, would leave most in a slump.

"People need to be careful how they respond to tweets and aware of how they treat people online and offline."

- Bridianne O'Dea, Black Dog Institute


A few weeks later, on August 29, besieged by the barrage of odious negativity, Dawson tweeted: 'ok NZ YOU WIN I GOT A FIST FULL OF VERY POTENT DRUGS! IM READY TO DIE! I ACCEPT YOUR HATE IM WORTHY OF DEATH!' – accompanied by picture holding said potent drugs. Another tweet that night read 'Hope this ends the misery...', followed by another: 'You win x'.

NSW Police Minister Mike Gallacher said he wanted the trolls "dragged out of their mother's basement and put before a court", adding that "even a cursory examination of the comments made to Ms Dawson overnight reveals they are clearly offensive to a reasonable person, which is the test for any prosecution under Section 474.17 of the Commonwealth Criminal Code Act".

Offenders in breach of the Act face a maximum three-year jail term, while University of Technology Sydney communications law expert Professor Michael Fraser said those who attacked Dawson had committed criminal acts. "The online world is not above the law," he said at the time. Yet Heti, like all the others, walked away scot-free; in fact, she was soon reinstated after the university she worked for found she was not guilty of misconduct.

I'm all for criticism since I'm essentially paid to critique but gone are the days where one had to think before literally putting pen to paper in a 'letter to the editor'. No, now it's all about real-time commentary via social media; if you get a tweet or post in there nice and early with requisite bite, denigration of the author and/or subject may be more widely read than the article itself.

For the archetypal spineless troll, that's a big win. Jackpot, even – provided, of course, there's enough retweets.

Last year, Facebook, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft signed up to a federal government complaint-handling scheme, designed to remove hateful material from social networks. Twitter is yet to do join.

The Abbott government is considering a legally binding scheme with civil penalties, and has proposed a simplified cyber bullying offence that will make prosecution of trolls easier. Bridianne O'Dea from the Black Dog Institute said a person's Twitter feed can predict their mental health: "People need to be careful how they respond to tweets and aware of how they treat people online and offline," she told The Sydney Morning Herald this week.

Stuart O'Grady hasn't been active on Twitter since July 23 last year, I discovered yesterday; his last tweet was on July 21.

On July 24, he was one of those named in a French Senate report detailing EPO use at the 1998 Tour de France, having returned a 'suspicious' sample. The same day he told The Australian he had taken EPO prior to the '98 Tour but stated, and has since maintained as such, that it was a one-off occurrence, and never danced with the Doping Devil again.

I will not go into the how or why, whether I believe him, or if he deserves a place back in the sport (that is for another time, and perhaps another place). However the social media backlash towards O'Grady has been considerable, though thankfully nothing as malicious as that towards Dawson. Still, as he told Cycling Central in an interview this week, he "still feels ashamed for what I did", and from what I interpreted, is in a fragile state. He also said putting him in the same boat as a systematic doper is akin to "comparing a thief and a murderer" (granted, I'm assuming here he was not the latter).

Yes, you have a right to be angry and frustrated. Yes, you have a right to express yourself. But no, you do not have a right to menace, harass or offend. While social media alone may or may not cause one to commit suicide, it is clearly a contributor, particularly to the emotionally vulnerable.

And, at one time or another, we've all been there.

"She touched a lot of people but the public eye was her tormenter as well," said Dawson's former manager, Mark Byrne.

I don't wholly subscribe to the 'Walk a mile in a man's shoes before you judge him' theory that often gets peddled, because armed with the requisite knowledge most of us now have access to, we know enough without the need to experience it ourselves. But I do feel that with understanding comes empathy and maybe even sympathy as well, for it is a time cycling will never forget – and the more we understand, the better our chances of moving on, rather than letting the past dictate the way we act and feel.

Trolls will always be trolls, but for the rest of us, next time you've got a bee in your bonnet or a bone to pick, take a few seconds – hell, take a few minutes – more before your next post on social media.

It might even save someone's life.