Sunday Herald Sun - Stellar - - Contents - Pho­tog­ra­phy BOB BARKER Words AL­LEY PAS­COE Cyberhate With Tara Moss airs 9.30pm Wed­nes­day, on ABC2. Life­line: 13 11 14.

Tara Moss ex­am­ines the dam­ag­ing health ef­fects of on­line abuse.

Tara Moss is hav­ing her brain scanned. She’s trapped in­side an MRI ma­chine, be­ing as­saulted by the strange claus­tro­pho­bic clicks and thumps that ac­com­pany the pro­ce­dure. But that’s not all that’s hap­pen­ing. The words, “Have you no shame, whore?” ap­pear on a screen in front of her. “Ly­ing about be­ing raped to sell your garbage book?” it con­tin­ues. “I hope you do get raped for your lies.”

This, clearly, is no or­di­nary MRI. The 43-year-old for­mer model and best­selling au­thor is tak­ing part in an ex­per­i­ment to record her re­sponses to on­line threats, as part of her new TV show Cyberhate With Tara Moss. Each of these ugly in­sults are real mes­sages she’s re­ceived on­line in the past. The scan shows that her body is be­ing racked with very real and very con­cern­ing phys­i­o­log­i­cal re­sponses to the words pen­e­trat­ing her con­scious­ness. “My au­to­matic ner­vous sys­tem kicked in, my heart rate went through the roof and stress hor­mones flooded my body,” Moss says later. “The adren­a­line re­sponse was very strong.”

Moss’s re­ac­tion is un­sur­pris­ing, says Dr Sylvia Gustin, a se­nior neu­ro­sci­en­tist and psy­chol­o­gist at the Univer­sity of New South Wales. She was the one mak­ing the in­sults ap­pear on­screen dur­ing the MRI. “When Tara was in the MRI ma­chine and ex­posed to these vi­o­lent words, it was dif­fi­cult for her not to fo­cus on them. This is what ac­tu­ally makes us sick,” Gustin tells Stel­lar. “We know that emo­tional abuse, such as cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, is just as hideous as phys­i­cal abuse. [It] can have dev­as­tat­ing ef­fects, caus­ing prob­lems such as sleep trou­ble, anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and even sui­cide.”

Moss, who started mod­el­ling when she was 14 be­fore go­ing on to be­come a best­selling crime au­thor and hu­man rights ac­tivist, is the first to ad­mit that she doesn’t re­ceive nearly as much abuse as some of her con­tem­po­raries, par­tic­u­larly women. That’s right, those ca­sual rape threats above are “mild” in the scheme of things.

“The women jour­nal­ists who I’ve spo­ken to have had their chil­dren threat­ened. They also get sex­u­alised threats of rape. It’s pretty un­pleas­ant, and it im­pacts women’s lives in very con­crete ways,” Moss says.

Dr Emma Jane, who re­searches on­line misog­yny and cy­ber­bul­ly­ing, says on­line abuse is a very real form of vi­o­lence. “Words can cause harm in a sim­i­lar way that me punch­ing you in the face would cause you harm,” she ex­plains.

Gustin adds that emo­tional abuse isn’t sim­ply as bad as phys­i­cal abuse – it can be even worse. “That’s be­cause the vic­tims of emo­tional abuse blame them­selves and min­imise their abuse. They say, ‘It was only on­line words, at least he/she didn’t hit me.’ The more you deny and sup­press feel­ings of sad­ness, help­less­ness and fear, the stronger these feel­ings are in your mind and the more they have an im­pact on both your phys­i­cal and men­tal health,” she says.

Moss ad­mits that she has be­come less af­fected by the abuse over time. “I’ve be­come a lit­tle more used to it, as sad as that might be,” she says. But a line is crossed for Moss, mother to a six-year-old daugh­ter, Sap­phira, when some­one she loves is threat­ened. “You can’t shut that off,” she tells Stel­lar.

An­dree Wright, the govern­ment’s for­mer act­ing Chil­dren’s esafety Com­mis­sioner, says we ought to send the old adage “words can never hurt me” back to the pre-in­ter­net age where it be­longs. “The im­pact of on­line abuse can be very much the same as what’s said face-to-face. It can ac­tu­ally feel more in­va­sive be­cause there’s a sense that it fol­lows you,” she ex­plains.

And it’s in­cred­i­bly com­mon. “More than three-quar­ters of all Aus­tralians un­der the age of 30 ex­pe­ri­ence on­line abuse. That’s a stag­ger­ing num­ber of peo­ple,” Moss says. “We are well over­due to take this is­sue se­ri­ously and ex­am­ine it prop­erly.”

If we don’t, Moss ar­gues, the trolls win. “When the bul­lies get to have their voices heard and say what they want, even if it’s against the law, it’s not good for democ­racy and it’s not good for day-to-day life – for any of us.”

Tack­ling the in­grained misog­yny and cul­ture of hate on the in­ter­net is a com­plex task. The an­swer is not as sim­ple as delet­ing Twit­ter or turn­ing off your phone and ig­nor­ing it, as many scep­tics sug­gest. Telling a vic­tim to step away from a place where he or she wants to be – e.g. the in­ter­net – sounds a lot like vic­tim-blam­ing. So it’s up to larger forces to start mak­ing waves.

“We need to make changes to leg­is­la­tion,” Jane says. “Po­lice need to be trained and take com­plaints se­ri­ously. Schools need re­sources in cy­ber ci­vil­ity. Par­ents need to talk about en­gag­ing on­line with their kids, and in­di­vid­u­als need to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the way we use tech­nol­ogy and call out bad be­hav­iour.”

For vic­tims, Gustin says the first step in deal­ing with on­line abuse is talk­ing about it. “It needs to be pro­cessed and not sup­pressed. Only then can you heal.”

Moss sug­gests vic­tims go one step fur­ther. “You have the right to re­port abuse. That is true in the phys­i­cal world, as well as the on­line world.”

Both Twit­ter and Face­book have poli­cies around cy­ber­abuse, but will only act to ban users if they know about it. The po­lice also have the right to con­front cy­ber­bul­ly­ing. Last year 25-year-old Zane Alchin from Syd­ney was given a 12-month good be­hav­iour bond for bom­bard­ing women with ob­scene mes­sages on­line. It’s not jail, but it is a con­vic­tion.

Wright hopes the se­ries will make Aus­tralians stop and think about the way they be­have on­line. “I wish for the cool kids in school, both on­line and off­line, to be kind. Let’s make it cool to be good on­line.”

“More than three-quar­ters of all Aus­tralians un­der the age of 30 ex­pe­ri­ence on­line abuse”

CY­BER EF­FECT Tara Moss ex­am­ines her MRI re­sults.

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