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(ABC NEWS) – Parents must get tough about social media use in the wake of the tragic death of 14-year-old Amy ‘Dolly’ Everett, a leading Australian child psychologist says, warning children under 12 should not be on social media at all.
Dr Michael Carr-Gregg, a youth mental health expert who is known for writing books like The Princess Bitchface Syndrome, said children under 12 should be banned from using social media.
“It is as simple as that — yet I go to primary schools right across Australia and the principals are pulling their hair out because the parents aren’t enforcing this,” Dr Carr-Gregg said.
“You have got up to 60 per cent to 70 per cent of primary school kids on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat and they simply do not have the neurological maturity to manage their digital footprint.
“We have to get that message through to parents, we have to educate them, and at the moment we are not doing enough.”
Dr Carr-Gregg’s said his heart goes out to the Everett family, who said goodbye to their “perfect little china doll” on Friday at a memorial service in the Northern Territory town of Katherine.
Dolly, the former face of Akubra hats, took her own life at a Northern Territory property on January 3, just weeks before she was due to return to the Scots College boarding school in Warwick in southern Queensland.
Persecuted in life, Dolly is now the face of an anti-bullying campaign in death.
Dr Carr-Gregg said being chronically victimised on or off-line was one of the risk factors for teenage suicide.
But a recent study by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute has uncovered that one-in-three boys and one-in-four girls as young as eight and nine years old are experiencing weekly bullying in primary school.
Dr Carr-Gregg said it was wrong to label these child bullies as cruel or callous, as they did not have the emotional intelligence to understand how damaging their behaviour was.
“We know the human brain has 100 billion brain cells in it and 1,000 trillion connections and we know they are not all wired up until the mid-20s,” he said.
“We know that the peak of bullying in Australia occurs around transition — so moving from primary to secondary school and we know there are some children whose emotional empathy is not well developed.
“Their threshold for tolerance of difference is very, very low and a result if you are different in some way, you are going to get picked on.
“It is not that it gives them joy, it is just something they do because they do not know what else to do.”
Dr Carr-Gregg said the bullying crisis facing our children was a parent, school and community problem.
“It is not going to be solved easily — what we need to be as parents is preventative,” he said.
Dr Carr-Gregg has also urged Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to step in and ensure children as young as five get social emotional competency training in primary school.
Mr Turnbull has acknowledged more work needs to be done to prevent cyber bullying in the wake of Dolly’s death.
Dr Carr-Gregg said bullying programs in schools were haphazard.
“There are some schools that have brilliant programs and there are some schools that have none, so we do not have that unified approach,” he said.
Better anti-bullying tool kits needed for children
The Isolated Children’s Parents Association (ICPA) has 2,500 grazier, cattle farmers and family members who live in the outback.
ICPA federal president Wendy Hick said she still cries when she reflects on how and why Dolly so tragically ended her life.
“Heartbreaking — only word that can sum it up — it is every parent’s nightmare,” Mrs Hick said.
“I still get teary thinking about it to be honest — even for families who do not know Dolly, her story has affected so many people.”
Mrs Hick said it had shone the spotlight on how isolated parents needed to talk to their children about the risks of bullying, well before they are sent off to boarding school.
“It is tough enough to send them away — we do not really realise all the things they will come up against,” she said.
“Situations like this certainly prompt conversation and we can have the chats but we are not physically there to help them.”
Mrs Hick said kids living in the outback already had restricted access to social media, due to lack of internet connections and bad mobile phone coverage.
It is a blessing in disguise, but she said that changed when the children went to boarding school.
Mrs Hick said the ICPA had found country kids often felt out of place at their new boarding schools.
“There is not always a large number of rural students who come from remote areas at schools when they go away,” she said.
“They might be small groups and I think they feel out of place and sometimes that makes them feel there is something wrong with them.
“But we tell them they need to know it is OK to be who you are and you also need to accept who other people are.”
Dolly’s family have launched a social media campaign to raise awareness of cyber-bullying and harassment.
The family used Friday’s memorial to reiterate their hope of starting a trust called “Dolly’s Dream” to raise awareness of bullying, depression, anxiety and youth suicide.
“We don’t want another family to go through what we are going through and our vision is to establish a trust called Dolly’s Dream,” Mr Everett said.
“It won’t bring our Dolly back, but it may just prevent the loss of another young life.”