Chi­nese break­ing si­lence on abuse

So­cial me­dia is de­stroy­ing our chil­dren’s lives

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - ROWAN CALLICK CHINA COR­RE­SPON­DENT

Chen Xiaowu, a pro­fes­sor at Bei­hang Univer­sity in Bei­jing, was sacked yes­ter­day over al­le­ga­tions of sex­ual ha­rass­ment made by five former stu­dents.

The most out­spo­ken of the former stu­dents, sci­en­tist Luo Qian­qian, said: “I hope this act of wei­quan (rights de­fence) will en­able more peo­ple to have enough courage to step for­ward and say #MeToo.”

She launched on Jan­uary 1 a site la­belled in Chi­nese #WoYeShi — “It’s also me” — which has rapidly gar­nered a mas­sive fol­low­ing.

China’s au­thor­i­ties re­main re­luc­tant to high­light sex­ual is­sues de­spite the shed­ding within the broad pop­u­la­tion of past cul­tural awk­ward­ness about pub­lic dis­cus­sion of such mat­ters.

There ap­pears no like­li­hood of China, for in­stance, con­sid­er­ing same-sex mar­riage, which Tai­wan ap­proved last year.

No Chi­nese univer­sity has yet es­tab­lished for­mal pro­ce­dures to han­dle sex­ual ha­rass­ment com­plaints — re­sult­ing in them be­ing raised on­line, as in Luo’s case.

Luo said that Chen, then her PhD su­per­vi­sor, ter­ri­fied her by as­sault­ing her — and that she re­sponded: “Please don’t do that, I’m still a vir­gin.”

As an ul­ti­mate re­sult, Chen has also lost both his ti­tle as pro­fes­sor and his cer­ti­fi­ca­tion as a teacher of stu­dents in China.

One of the pioneers of the move­ment now start­ing to gather mo­men­tum in China against sex­ual ha­rass­ment is Huang Xue­qin.

Af­ter Luo went on­line re­veal­ing her ex­pe­ri­ence, Huang col­lected more than 4000 sig­na­tures call­ing on Bei­hang Univer­sity to con­duct an open in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

A few years ago, Guangzhoubased Huang quit a promis­ing ca­reer at one of China’s na­tional me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions to de­vote her­self to op­pos­ing the sex­ual ha­rass­ment of women at work, fol­low­ing her own ex­pe­ri­ence. She ex­plained on­line on Weibo that she be­gan work­ing for the or­gan­i­sa­tion soon af­ter grad­u­at­ing from univer­sity.

“I worked with a col­league who boasted of cov­er­ing many im­por­tant events — floods, earth­quakes, the Olympic Games, etc. I was in awe of him, un­til the day he re­vealed his true face dur­ing a trip,” she said.

Huang said her col­league made an ex­cuse about as­sess­ing some pho­to­graphs to go to her ho­tel room. “I was sit­ting at the desk, he was on the couch. Then he said ‘there’s no ta­ble near the couch, it’s hard to work from here’.”

He brought a chair and sat next to her. “Sud­denly, he put his hand on my thigh. I was shocked, and stood up im­me­di­ately. I didn’t dare to speak, I just stood in shock.

“My col­league stood up too, gripped me in his arms, and said ‘I’ve been look­ing at you for a long time. You’re not the pret­ti­est of the girls at work, but you are smart and cute. I like you very much’.

“I was frozen, my brain seemed empty, my heart beat faster, I couldn’t be­lieve what was hap­pen­ing. Is he ex­press­ing love, or sex­u­ally ha­rass­ing me? Did I do some­thing to mis­lead him? As soon as the word ‘ha­rass­ment’ came to my mind, I re­cov­ered my think­ing. I kicked his lower body, and ran out of the room.”

Af­ter quit­ting, Huang asked nine fe­male jour­nal­ists about their ex­pe­ri­ences. Five told her they too had suf­fered sim­i­lar treat­ment.

She re­alised that most of the vic­tims chose to re­main silent.

“I strongly felt I should do some­thing about it,” she said.

“I want to break the si­lence. Even though I have to ex­pose my own scar, even though there might be storms.”

A sur­vey last year of 6952 stu­dents and grad­u­ates by the Guangzhou Gen­der and Sex­u­al­ity Ed­u­ca­tion Cen­tre and law group Bei­jing Im­pact, found 69 per cent had been sex­u­ally ha­rassed, but fewer than 4 per cent had re­ported it to their univer­sity or to po­lice.

A lit­tle girl called Dolly who was once the face of Akubra has taken her own life af­ter be­ing cy­ber­bul­lied. She was 14. Just 14. Look at her, not only in the pic­ture that was taken for a Christ­mas cam­paign when she was six, but in those that were dis­played by her dev­as­tated par­ents at her ser­vice yes­ter­day, smil­ing shyly as she walks along with her horse in her dusty boots and her low-slung jeans.

You want to sweep her up into your arms and run, and keep on run­ning.

You want to tell her: hey, it’s OK. These peo­ple who are tor­ment­ing you, they’re not im­por­tant. You’re im­por­tant. To your mum and dad and your sis­ter; to the red dust and the blue sky and the brown rivers that tra­verse this, your out­back home. But it’s too late. When the news of Dolly’s death was re­ported in The Aus­tralian this week, one let­ter writer said: “My grand­daugh­ters, aged eight and six, said: what did she do wrong? I said she was sad be­cause some peo­ple said nasty things about her. ‘Why?’, they said. ‘She looked so friendly, why would any­one do that?’ Could some­one tell me what to tell them?”

Yes, what are we sup­posed to tell them?

That we didn’t know what we were do­ing when we opened the door to this brave new world of tweets and “likes”, Face­book up­dates; that we thought it would be fine, and maybe even fun.

That we did not un­der­stand the vi­cious and vis­cous na­ture of it; how it would come to fill our homes, un­til bile was pour­ing from the win­dows; that it would creep into our chil­dren’s bed­rooms; that it would be there when they tried to sleep at night and still there when they woke in the morn­ing; that it would fes­ter and blis­ter in their pock­ets on the bus; that it would fer­tilise a sense of dread, am­pli­fied a thou­sand times in the form of shared mes­sages and group bul­ly­ing; that even as we told them they were well-loved and do­ing OK, ev­ery feed in their stream would be re­mind­ing them that, ac­tu­ally, they’re fat and their life is not fun, and they do not have many friends and ha ha ha, be­cause ev­ery­one else does. What have we done? With Face­book, In­sta­gram, Twit­ter, YouTube, What­sApp, Snapchat, all that junk, what have we done? We have opened a win­dow for our kids to see the kind of things we never saw, be­cause what­ever the per­ver­sion, so­cial me­dia has ab­so­lutely got you cov­ered: women de­graded in vile pornog­ra­phy, their bod­ies cut up, or starved by anorexia, preda­tors at­tack­ing chil­dren, an­i­mal tor­ture, re­venge porn. Last Jan­uary, a 12year-old girl Face­book-streamed her own hang­ing from a tree. The clip stayed on­line for eight hours, and you could stay and read the com­ments: “Look, her legs are twitch­ing!”

It’s a swamp, a sewer, and this poor sweet girl — Amy Jayne Everett, known to fam­ily as Dolly, from the spir­i­tual plains of the North­ern Ter­ri­tory — has drowned in it, and can’t you see her now, crouch­ing down as the waters closed in around her, find­ing no way out?

Just one way out. In the days be­fore her death, Dolly drew a har­row­ing sketch of a tor­tured young girl, urg­ing peo­ple to “speak up al­though your voice shakes”. That sketch formed part of the ser­vice, held at her lo­cal pri­mary school yes­ter­day. Dolly’s par­ents, Tick and Kate Everett, and her sis­ter Meg, in­vited those who tor­mented Dolly to come along and see the ut­ter dev­as­ta­tion.

“We are not con­cerned with the who or the why of who pushed our daugh­ter to this point,” Dolly’s par­ents said. “We just want to save an­other fam­ily go­ing through the sad­ness and tragedy that our fam­ily is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.”

Images shown on the screen in­cluded Dolly hav­ing a fun time with a pony, with sun­glasses on its head. Dolly by the river, with a horse by the reins. Then an empty swing against the pink sky, and these words: “Don’t let this hap­pen to any­one else … Speak up, stand up, stop it now.”

Of course sui­cide is not un­com­mon in Aus­tralia, and yet the loss of this one girl from the Top End has shaken the nation, and it is worth ask­ing: why does Dolly’s death so res­onate? Be­cause, look at her. That open face. That shy smile. To look at Dolly is to see an Aus­tralia that barely ex­ists any­more: a place that was care­free and spir­ited. And now it seems that she is shin­ing down over us, a sym­bol of all that we’ve lost, in­clud­ing our own un­com­pli­cated child­hoods.

She was 14. That’s the bit you can’t shake.

The thing is, the so­cial me­dia com­pa­nies, they know what they’re do­ing. They know their prod­uct is hor­rific. They know that they are putting pre­vi­ously restricted, en­tirely unedited con­tent into the hands of chil­dren, and they know they’re giv­ing kids the tools to take their lives. Just last week, a so-called YouTube “star” — a tou­sle-haired blond dude called Lo­gan Paul, who has six mil­lion fol­low­ers — went snick­er­ing with his cam­era crew into a Ja­panese for­est fa­mous for its sui­cides, where they came upon a swing­ing body. He filmed it. No, he re­ally did. He up­loaded the video of the corpse for his pre-teen fans, without any age re­stric­tions. Kids were watch­ing. Mil­lions of them.

This is new me­dia. The clip soon came down, but YouTube waited 10 days to re­spond, say­ing they were go­ing to clip Lo­gan’s wings by not let­ting him be part of their ex­tra-spe­cial money-mak­ing chan­nel any more.

“Sui­cide should never be a driv­ing force for views … That body was a per­son some­one loved,” the com­pany said.

You don’t say.

In years to come we may well look back, amazed that an en­tire gen­er­a­tion — us, the par­ents — al­lowed our kids to have ac­cess to these things, via their phones, be­cause we thought: what’s the harm? It makes it so much eas­ier to stay in touch with them. I feel bet­ter, as a par­ent, know­ing they’ve got a phone. What we got in­stead of se­cu­rity is what one Har­vard Univer­sity study has de­scribed as a “grow­ing pub­lic health cri­sis” of smart­phone ad­dic­tion, trig­ger­ing sui­cide. Re­searchers at Tel Aviv Univer­sity say the prob­lem is that Face­book can cause peo­ple to feel their lives don’t mea­sure up to those of oth­ers and, big sur­prise, “the ef­fect is es­pe­cially pro­nounced in young peo­ple”.

So­cial net­works make us mis­er­able. Like to­bacco causes can­cer, so­cial me­dia causes de­pres­sion, and de­pres­sion is a po­ten­tially fa­tal ill­ness. And like the cig­a­rette com­pa­nies, Face­book, Google, all those guys, may one day be held to ac­count. They are al­ready ner­vous. Two Ap­ple share­hold­ers whose in­sti­tu­tions to­gether hold more $2 bil­lion worth of Ap­ple stock last week wrote pub­licly to the com­pany, warn­ing ex­ec­u­tives to take se­ri­ously the mount­ing stud­ies — from Har­vard Med­i­cal School, Boston Chil­dren’s Hospi­tal and San Diego State Univer­sity — that have found chil­dren us­ing dig­i­tal tech­nolo­gies are more prone to sui­cide.

A former Face­book vi­cepres­i­dent, Chamath Pal­i­hapi­tiya, last week told an au­di­ence at Stan­ford that he suf­fers from “tremen­dous guilt” for even cre­at­ing the plat­form, and as for his kids, they “aren’t al­lowed to use this shit”.

In the face of ris­ing con­cern, Ap­ple this week is­sued its own state­ment — they do love state­ments, these com­pa­nies — say­ing it “has al­ways looked out for kids … since 2008 the iPhone’s soft­ware has al­lowed par­ents to con­trol which apps, movies, games and other con­tent chil­dren can ac­cess”.

What does that even mean? Be­cause what can par­ents re­ally do? The de­vices are ev­ery­where. They’re in the play­ground. Your child may not have one, but sure as hell some­body does. It’s per­va­sive, and poi­sonous, and the con­tent is not like old me­dia. It is not edited. There are no rules.

Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg, in a state­ment of his own, pledged last week to “fix” Face­book by “mak­ing sure that time spent on Face­book is time well spent”.

Er, by this, does Zucker­berg — in fair­ness, a young fa­ther him­self, rid­ing a tiger he cre­ated in col­lege that has grown to the size of the known uni­verse — ex­pect us to be­lieve that Face­book does not know who among its users is prone to sui­cide? This is a com­pany that knows how much you earn, and where you long to go on hol­i­days, and what you Google in your dark­est hours. They can’t tell which kids are at risk of sui­cide?

Of course they can, and if they re­ally can’t, they should get one of those 20,000 su­per-smart IT guys they em­ploy — maybe the one now busy de­sign­ing a new sun­glass-wear­ing emoji — to find out.

Like, now. Be­cause so­cial me­dia is de­stroy­ing us.

Speak to par­ents of teenagers. They all have the same sto­ries: des­per­ate mums and dads sleep­ing on the floor of the trau­ma­tised teenager’s bed­room; or push­ing the door open in the morn­ing, not sure what they might find.

Yes, I know. Let’s not get emo­tional. Let’s be ra­tio­nal: sui­cide is still rare for girls aged 14 and un­der, at 0.3 deaths per 100,000 in 2016. But like a plague, it’s spread­ing: ac­cord­ing to Life­line, sui­cide is now the leading cause of death of chil­dren be­tween five and 17 years of age; the sui­cide rate for 15 to 24year-olds is at the high­est in 10 years; the num­ber of teenage girls who die by sui­cide has risen by 20 per cent since 2015.

Who feels ra­tio­nal, in the face of this calamity? She was 14. Just 14. We must do some­thing, but what can we do? From the men­tal health ex­perts, the mes­sage is sim­ple enough: try to put some lim­its on so­cial me­dia, but also en­cour­age your kids to be kind.

Ask for help if you need it, and ask oth­ers if they need it. Some­times it’s a mat­ter of help­ing a child put a few min­utes to­gether to make an hour; a few hours to make a day; a few days to make a week; a few weeks to make a month, and now we’re at the six-month mark, and let’s just keep go­ing, run­ning as fast as we can from the scourge that is de­pres­sion.

Other times, we know we just won’t be able to reach them. You can stretch your hand in their di­rec­tion, you can im­plore them to see the good in the world, and they will re­main beyond your grasp.

And that is what has hap­pened here. There was no lack of will to keep Dolly alive, not among those who loved her. There was just an all-en­com­pass­ing hope­less­ness set­tling on a sweet kid from cat­tle coun­try who in the end could not find a bridge be­tween the ag­o­nis­ing place in which she found her­self and that place where we all so much need her to be: here at home, in the heart of her Aus­tralian fam­ily, which wakes this morn­ing to find that she is not here.

It’s a swamp, a sewer, and this poor sweet girl — Amy Jayne Everett, known to fam­ily as Dolly — has drowned in it

Images of Dolly in­clud­ing, bot­tom right, as the sixyear-old face of Akubra; the il­lus­tra­tion at top left was com­pleted days be­fore Dolly took her own life; and, bot­tom left, Dolly’s fa­ther, Tick Everett, com­forts a small girl at the ser­vice

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