Lisa Wilkinson: I Survived The Schoolyard Bullies, But Too Many Aussie Kids Don't

The numbers are horrifying and, as a community, we must take action to better protect our youth.

Like so many women of my generation, I grew up reading a magazine called Dolly. Fun, trusted, and non-threatening, it was like a wise and warm best friend delivering good advice every month, gently guiding me as I stumbled down that relentlessly rocky road to womanhood.

By happy coincidence it was also the place where I began my career, so Dolly will always hold happy memories for me.

But these days that name also breaks my heart. Like the rest of the nation, I was deeply troubled by news of the suicide of 14-year-old “Dolly” Everett in the Northern Territory earlier this year. A sweet, seemingly happy young girl with so much to live for, Dolly is now counted as one of the many hundreds of young Australian lives lost each year to the growing epidemic of bullying.

Dolly Everett. Image: Facebook.

The numbers are horrifying and, as a community, we must take action to better protect our youth.

For me, it is personal, as I know only too well the pain of being on the receiving end of relentless bullying.

It happened in my teenage years. How I got through it, I’m still not sure. For years I dreaded that walk to school each day. The constant threat of being beaten up. The anticipation of an unexpected shove in the canteen queue, a netball 'accidentally' thrown at my head during sport or, on a few occasions, the humiliation of knockout blows while crowds of fellow pupils gathered to chants of “fight, fight, fight”.

To cope, I did all I could not to shine. To shrink and not be a target. To disappear between the cracks.

At least, however, I had the comfort of knowing when I got home and closed the door that I was in a safe haven for the next 17 hours and they couldn’t get to me. There, I could shut out the abuse, while I recharged and steeled myself for whatever the next day’s school bell would bring.

But in 2018, for teens who find themselves the target of bullies, there is simply no escaping it. The insidious omnipresence of 24/7 social media has seen to that.

For parents, this is the stuff of nightmares. Bullying is everywhere. One in five Australian teens has admitted to being the subject of abuse online. And when children, like Dolly and many others, are taking their lives in increasing numbers, we must acknowledge that right now something in the system, and the world our children now inhabit, is horribly broken.

How on earth did we get here? Haven’t we taught them good manners and kindness from an early age? Hasn’t 'bullying' been a by-word for 'bad' for decades?

Obviously, the angry culture we now live in has to be a huge part of it. In the media it is all too often the angriest of the commentators who attract the headlines and prosper most, as they draw the biggest crowds, and the best of them can line up four to five targets at every outing to slice and dice as the crowd roars.

In Parliament, a place where our politicians should lead by example, abuse and vitriol has become the stock-in-trade.

"I will not be lectured about misogyny and sexism by this man!" Image: Getty.

Social media, that largely unfiltered world of raw communication, certainly has a significant case to answer. The endless digital darts of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat and their famous-for-being-famous 'influencers' led by its royal family of Kardashians, mean that critical judgment is everywhere. How we look, how many 'friends' we have, and how many likes from often-complete-strangers our images can generate, has somehow become the new measure of personal worth.

Meanwhile, so much of online media exists as a cacophony of click-bait and coercion. Just scroll through some of the more popular tabloid sites and you will see the same fodder: celebrities (a state of being which has ironically become the 21st century’s ultimate life goal) measured by their appearance, their marital status, their relationships, their parenting...

Paparazzi photos designed to humiliate their subjects abound, and if you can gratuitously zero in on supposed 'flaws' and wardrobe malfunctions like granny pants, thigh wobbles, side-boobs, cellulite and nipple-slips, all the better.

Had a baby and put on weight? Had a baby and haven’t put on weight? Not to worry, because there’s an audience for both. And please, pile on and have your say, because that too has somehow become part of the spectator sport in all of this.

And if you have the temerity to be a woman over 40, expect it to become part of the headline. Or at least somewhere in the first few paragraphs. Because that is the benchmark from which everything shall be judged from here. And if you are as genetically blessed as Helen Mirren or Elle Macpherson, expect to be constantly reminded of how good you look 'for your age'.

Oscar and Helen Mirren. Both timeless. Image: Getty.

Of course, this systematic abuse and denigration of women is hardly a new phenomenon. We women have actually been paying to feel bad about ourselves for years now. Weekly women’s gossip magazines are something Aussies have consumed and embraced at a higher rate per capita than anywhere else in the world for decades. And while it is easy to dismiss them as innocent escapism, in many cases they are in fact, spirit breakers.

Contemplate, just for a moment, what those headlines sitting on supermarket shelves and left in doctors waiting rooms, screaming about revenge bodies, post-baby bounce-backs, bitter alleged fallouts between female colleagues and the 'poor Jen' depiction of anyone baby-less or not in a relationship, are encouraging in our kids. And the damaging messages they lay in our collective consciousness.

Meantime, on TV, audiences have now voted with their remotes and made the bitchiest of 'reality' shows their number one viewing choice. It’s a world where backstabbing and broken alliances are de rigeur and the object is to belittle and berate.

So when kids look up and see across the board -- in parliament, on radio, in newspapers, online, in chat rooms and on TV -- adults regularly indulging in bitchy, combative rhetoric, and audiences hungrily consuming it under the guise of harmless entertainment, is it any wonder that that behaviour gets in? That standards are subconsciously set? That we end up with critical, combative and judgmental kids? That they go online, into their chat rooms, onto their phones, into the playground, with no awareness of just how damaging their words and actions can be... and repeat?

Ultimately, our kids are simply mimicking the culture we have allowed to flourish. So why on earth are we so surprised they can’t cope?

Maybe it’s time we turned to media, to politicians, to commentators and said “enough!” That as the adults in the room, it is our duty to try and turn this around. That we start embracing a culture that celebrates rather than sledges; that picks us up instead of putting us down.

If not for us, then for all the Dollys we haven’t yet met. And the devastated families they leave behind.

I say if we stop taking the bait, then our kids might, too.

Lisa Wilkinson (R) with her best friend Michelle in the playground at Campbelltown High.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.