How parents can help keep their children safe

Computer safety ... top priority.
Computer safety ... top priority. 

Victoria's chief child psychiatrist has urged parents to remove computers from children's bedrooms, following the suicides of four Geelong teenagers, one of which had links to cyber bullying.

Sandra Radovini said parents must become more internet savvy to protect children from bullies in online chatrooms and social networking sites.

The call comes as suicide experts express fears the death rate is under-reported and the number of children taking their own lives could be rising.

Dr Radovini said the suicide of 14-year-old Chanelle Rae - who died 10 days ago after she received a nasty message online - had put the spotlight on cyber bullying. "You can have this happening in a young person's bedroom, they don't have to be in the schoolyard," Dr Radovini warned.

"So what kind of protective strategies in the home can we have? What can parents do? Maybe young people shouldn't have computers in their bedrooms, maybe it should be somewhere where it's a more public space in the home where parents can keep a bit of a casual eye. Maybe parents need to get a bit more computer savvy so that they understand that medium and have some awareness of chatrooms."

The victim can't tell on the kid because they don't know who's actually doing the bullying so they feel very out of control. One of the things that leads to depression is that sense of feeling out of control

Dr Radovini stressed that the students who had allegedly bullied the Geelong girl could also be at risk of mental health problems. "The kids involved will need significant supports. This will be shocking for them to think that these two events might be connected. They will be young people who will be identified as potentially vulnerable and who will need supports that will be put in place."

Chanelle was the fourth student from Geelong's Western Heights College to suicide in six months.

Lifeline chief executive Dawn O'Neil said young people who experienced the suicide of a close friend or relative were four times more at risk of taking their own life. She added that while official figures showed Australian suicide rates had decreased in the past decade - to about 2000 deaths a year, of which about 100 are among 15 to 19-year-olds - the real toll could be up to 40 per cent higher as many suicides were recorded as accidents or death by undetermined cause.

And while coroners often do not record suicides for children under 13, Lifeline has experienced a rise in calls from families who have lost children in that age group.

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"We know there are increasing numbers of very young people suiciding, particularly in indigenous communities, but also across the population. That's very distressing," Ms O'Neil said.

"We know about these deaths but they don't get formally reported . . . in recent years it does seem to be an increasing trend. At that age young people are so much more vulnerable, it's a time when they're questioning the meaning of their lives and often they can be quite overwhelmed even if they've got a perfectly happy and stable life."

Sophie Reid, a child psychologist from the Royal Children's Hospital, believes cyber bullying is more toxic than playground bullying because it is often anonymous, allowing children to be more cruel.

"The victim can't tell on the kid because they don't know who's actually doing the bullying so they feel very out of control. One of the things that leads to depression is that sense of feeling out of control," Dr Reid said.

"They (bullies) take photos of each other with mobile phones or videos that are ugly then they pop them on websites like Facebook. It's horrible. They can go to a revolting porn site and enter someone else's email address in there and that person receives spam from that website. Alternatively they might set up an email address with someone else's name in it with Gmail or Hotmail and then start sending revolting messages so it seems like they are the ones who are doing it."

Dr Michael Dudley, chair of Suicide Prevention Australia, urged parents to openly discuss the topic with their children.

"When a teenager makes a dramatic statement like, 'I want to die', I would encourage all parents to take that seriously... Most kids don't comprehend the finality of it. They tend to think that death's somehow reversible."
For help visit www.beyondblue.org.au, call Suicide Helpline Victoria on 1300 651 251, Lifeline on 131 114 or Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800.

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