Content warning: This article contains distressing content
At 14, life was looking bright for Carly Ryan.
The pretty brunette Adelaide teenager was in love – with a handsome young Melbourne musician called Brandon Kane, 18. They had met online, and clicked immediately. Over months of virtual chats, their relationship grew.
Carly’s dream boyfriend, however, was fictitious.
‘Brandon’, it turned out, was the cyberspace avatar of Garry Francis Newman, a balding, overweight, 50-year-old Victorian IT worker and paedophile who created this charming online alter ego as bait for the children he was after.
Newman was supremely convincing even in real life.
When he appeared at Carly’s Adelaide Hills home in January 2007 – the day of her 15th birthday - saying he was Brandon’s father Shane, and bearing presents and greetings from his ‘son’, the teenager and her family welcomed him with open arms.
A few days later, however, Carly’s mother Sonya found Newman in Carly’s bedroom, lying on top of the covers of her bed. Horrified, she kicked him out.
A month later, an enraged Newman lured Carly to a deserted beach by pretending to be Brandon. There he bashed and choked her, leaving her to drown and him free to start trawling for new victims
In fact, when police came to arrest him at his home in Victoria, they found him at his computer, logged in as Brandon, chatting with a 14-year old girl in Western Australia.
For Carly’s devastated mother Sonya, the 12 years since her daughter’s murder have been devoted to raising internet safety awareness.
The Carly Ryan Foundation, set up in 2010, delivers online safety and healthy relationship seminars to students and parents nationally through its Project Connect education program, app sheets, Family Online Social Contract and other resources.
Ryan, honoured internationally last year for her advocacy work, has also been a pioneer in law and policy reform.
Last year, Carly’s Law was passed, giving police power to intervene before predators have a chance to act by making it a criminal offence for adults to lie to a child online with the intent of causing them harm.
It is only the tip of the iceberg of what we need to do, Ryan says.
Carly’s murder happened at a time when the potential online dangers were largely unknown to most families. Predators like Newman were able to infiltrate the virtual world with relative ease.
Despite our greater awareness, the threat today is greater than ever, she says.
Research shows that approximately one in five young people under 18 (20 per cent) reported experiencing online bullying in any one year.
Girls are about twice as likely as boys to be victims and perpetrators of cyber bullying, and the most common age for cyberbullying is the transition period between primary and high school, with kids age 11 to 12 particularly vulnerable.
Smart phones potentially expose them to everything from extreme porn to sexting and its potential criminal consequences to catfishing, being duped by a fake identity as Ryan’s daughter was (research indicates that 83 million Facebook accounts are fake).
We are raising a generation of digital natives but we have little or no knowledge of their social tools and culture
Cyberbullying has real world consequences. The fallout can range from low self-esteem to depression to suicide.
Suicide rates among young Australians are at their highest level in 10 years.
While there are no official statistics on what role cyberbullying plays, a new report shows that children and young people under 25 being cyberbullied are more than twice as likely to self-harm and enact suicidal behaviour.
Perpetrators are at a higher risk of experiencing suicidal thoughts and behaviour as well.
Not all social media is created equal, with another study pinpointing Instagram as a cyberbullying minefield compared to other platforms.
It’s a scary new frontier. So what can we do as parents and carers?
Putting screen locks on our children’s devices, taking their phones away, even turning to digital reputation management companies at the extreme end, ignores the fact that social media is the way our children interact with each other and the world, Ryan says.
Demonising technology is not the answer. Education is. We are raising a generation of digital natives but we have little or no knowledge of their social tools and culture, Ryan says.
Her goal? To see a compulsory social media module in every school across Australia, involving families, community organisations, educators and law enforcement.
It would focus on everything from digital citizenship to building healthy relationships, resilience and emotional intelligence. Free mental health services for children up to 18 is also on her wish list.
Ultimately, the government, schools and communities need to invest in preventative, not reactive measures.
Porn is becoming more and more violent, kids have access to the dark net. Essentially, I think it’s dehumanising a whole generation
However, education programs and law reform can only go so far, Ryan says.
She is increasingly alarmed about the misogyny, racism, homophobia and general hate speech she’s seeing on social media - even from boys as young as 11 or 12 – and which she attributes to everything from the rise of rape culture to bad public male role modelling to increasingly early exposure to hard-core porn.
“What they are being exposed to is very different to what we were. Porn is becoming more and more violent, kids have access to the dark net. Essentially, I think it’s dehumanising a whole generation. This is serious stuff.”
Widespread cultural change is needed – and it needs to begin at home.
Constant monitoring of their devices aside, talk to your children about self-respect, the deceptive images of perfection on social media, and the bystander effect, she urges. Cultivate resilience and empathy – how would you feel if you were the one being cyberbullied? Stress the dangers of oversharing online, and the permanent digital footprint you leave every time you post or share anything. Repeat these messages as often as you can.
Ryan applauds upcoming SBS series The Hunting, following four teenagers navigating gender politics and social media minefields in multicultural Australia, as a timely examination of the perils our children face online.
Her take-home message?
What happened to Carly can happen to anyone. You might think your child is immune. They aren’t. In a globally wired world, no one is.
“Nothing less than a call to action to needed. This is a generation that is in danger of being lost.”
The Hunting premieres on Thursday, August 1 at 8:30pm on SBS and SBS On Demand, and airs over four weeks.
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800737732 or visit www.1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency dial 000.
Image-based abuse: www.esafety.gov.au/image-based-abuse/action
Offensive and illegal content: esafety.gov.au/complaints-and-reporting/offensive-and-illegal-content-complaints
Lifeline on 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800