A former federal chief justice is among experts urging the Abbott government to introduce national anti-bullying laws that protect all online users.
Leading legal and mental health figures have spoken out following the death of TV star Charlotte Dawson, who suffered depression and had a long, public battle with Twitter tormenters.
The 47-year-old was found dead in her Sydney home on Saturday.
Former Family Court chief justice Alastair Nicholson is leading a charge for national laws to tackle all forms of bullying.
The coalition has already flagged legislative changes aimed at protecting children from abuse online.
Its mooted reforms include the creation of a children’s e-safety commissioner, new laws to get bullying material taken down fast from large social media sites, and a new national cyber-bullying offence.
But Mr Nicholson says any new laws should protect the whole community.
“I don’t think we can stop at children,” he told AAP on Sunday.
“There’s a bit of the old concept that, ‘Oh yes, we were all bullied at school, and we got over it’ …
“This is a much more serious problem than we’ve ever accepted.”
BeyondBlue chief Kate Carnell told AAP she understood the focus on children but the legislative response needed to cover adults, too.
“You want to aim at kids because they’ve probably got less resilience, less life skills to be able to manage that sort of thing but bullying can cause significant damage at any time.”
Parliamentary secretary for communications Paul Fletcher told AAP Dawson’s death was “tragic” but the government considered child victims of cyber-bullying its top priority.
“In our society there are a range of areas where we put in place extra protections for children in recognition of the fact that they are not necessarily able to make judgments or protect themselves in the same way that adults are,” he said on Sunday.
“There’s always a dividing line to be drawn at some point.”
The MP said there were existing criminal laws covering some bullying behaviour but it was possible harsh penalties left police reluctant to use them.
They also fail to address the hateful messages themselves.
“For victims of serious cyber-bullying, very often what they want more than anything else is to get the harmful material down quickly,” Mr Fletcher said.
Perth-based media lawyer Roger Blow, an expert in social media liability and online trolling, told AAP the push for national cyber-bullying laws had been building for at least two years but Dawson’s death had shone a spotlight on the reform process.
Mr Blow said it was difficult to pin down individual liability in cases of “mob” bullying.
Public submissions to the government’s proposed laws close in March, with laws expected before parliament by the end of the year.
* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.