Modern technology, and especially smartphones, allow us to communicate promptly and on the go with others.
They can assist in keeping our children and other loved ones safe. They can let us know where they are, if they are being delayed and when and where to be picked up after an event. The flip side of constant access is being contacted and being under pressure to respond even when you would rather relax.
The ability of smartphones to receive not only telephone calls but also SMS messages and emails, together with the ability to access social media like Facebook allows for a darker use of the device. That is the ability to target someone with a barrage of messages, at all times of the day and night, and potentially without any extra cost.
In this way, computers and smartphones can be used by someone with ill intent to bully, harass and intimidate another and in a way not previously possible.
As we have seen with the recently reported case of Libby Bell, this can result in harm to the point of a tragic and unnecessary loss of life.
The criminal law is already broad in its scope but, from time to time, and especially with emerging technologies, it is appropriate to review the law to see whether a specific new law should be introduced. That happened in Victoria with what is called “Brodie’s law” to address cases of severe bullying through the use of electronic devices and Australian Conservatives SA is advocating for a similar law here.
Care however must be taken not to overreach. It is not uncommon for someone who is upset, in the heat of the moment, to shoot off an email or SMS message which upsets another and may be quickly regretted.
The criminal law should be reserved for those cases where there is intentional and aggressive, typically persistent, conduct through online devices which are intended to harm another. It should include action where the offender is recklessly indifferent as to whether it will induce another to self-harm.
The Parliament should also consider changes to the law addressing bullying before it gets to the final stage. The case of Libby Bell is an example of how bullying can start with some relatively mild complaints and become more aggressive and nastier over time. Consideration should be given to a regime of restraining orders similar to that which applies commonly in the area of domestic violence. One evidentiary advantage with bullying through technology is the readily available accurate evidence of what has happened.
The government has demonstrated, recently, in the area of photos and film distributed electronically containing humiliating or degrading images that laws can be introduced to effectively deal with the dark side of the use of emerging technologies.