BULLYING ON REALITY TV
Contestant tells her story to Alison Mau
Not long ago, in the magical world of reality television, a beautiful young woman learned the hard way never to raise her head above the parapet lest it be lopped off by trolls. I can’t tell you her name, thanks to contractual issues with the television company. So we shall call her L. L had survived an abusive relationship. She thought going on the television show would be good for her self-confidence. She would prove to herself, she thought, that there was hope; that she was capable of anything (this may have been a little naive – making television is not glamorous and can in fact be hard, boring and shallow. But L is only just a few years older than my kids, so I can forgive her that.) What she learned instead, is that some New Zealanders really are capable of the worst kinds of things. The show was bad enough. On the night the first episode aired, about 20 of her nearest and dearest gathered to watch. It wasn’t the fun time they’d imagined – the bullying among the contestants made her mum so upset, she couldn’t keep watching. But L was philosophical, at least until she opened her social media. The vitriol that poured into her accounts, from people she had never met, was breathtaking. ‘‘I didn’t realise online bullying was as bad as it is,’’ L says. ‘‘I consider myself a nice person. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from all of this is how horrible as a country we are.’’ If you’re already feeling cranky about L, because you think that people who get to go on the telly should be grateful and just shut up about it, its fair to assume you’ve never been the target of online trolling. On L’s social media accounts, the death threats, suggestions that she kill herself, and complaints that she was fat, ugly, and should never have dared to put her herself forward for the programme, began to flood in. Late last year, Amnesty International researched online abuse in New Zealand. They set the bar pretty high – we’re talking rape and death threats, not just insults – and the results make for very sobering reading. Around a third of women surveyed said they’d been abused or harassed online. Of that number, almost half said they feared for their physical safety, and a whopping 75 per cent said it affected their sleep. Almost a third said they feared for the physical safety of their families. L says she felt all of the above, and was eventually too scared even to visit her gym in case she was abused in person. She ended up at her GP’s surgery, was diagnosed with severe anxiety, and prescribed medication. Married At First Sight contestant Lacey Swanepoel talked publicly of death threats received after an episode of the show in October last year. Contestants on The Block (twins Julia and Ali) and The Bachelor (Naz Khanjani) have spoken of similar abuse while Heartbreak Island contestant Caitlin Smith told a radio station she was bullied on and off set. Both television networks say they’re aware of, and are responsive to, the dangers. A TVNZ spokesperson told me healthcare professionals for both physical and mental wellbeing are on staff during production. An on-call psychologist is available for contestants after shows wrap, and the service is ‘‘encouraged, unlimited and confidential.’’ Mediaworks’ spokesperson said they stayed in constant contact with reality show contestants throughout, and ‘‘all have access to independent psychological support as well network executives during filming, while the show is on air and after the show finishes if required’’. Still, the voices and opinions of ordinary Kiwi women like L, are being shut down. Amnesty’s research found more than three quarters of Kiwi women who’d been harassed online, changed the way they use social media. A third said they’d stopped expressing their opinions on certain issues. We have legislation, just three years old, that’s intended to deal with all this. There have been more than 170 cases brought under the Harmful Digital Communications Act, but the majority have been for revenge porn, an offence usually committed by a person who knows the victim – a partner or ex-partner – not a bunch of strangers threatening rape or death. The only recourse for people like L, is help from Netsafe to block and report the abusers, and ask the social media platform to intervene. A review later this year has been promised. It must contain something that helps protect the mental health and the rights of everyone to speak without fear of harassment online.
Stars of Kiwi reality TV: Naz Khanjani (The Bachelor), Julia and Ali Heaney (The Block), and Lacey Swanepoel (Married at First Sight).