In the middle of the current series of ABC’s The Heights a storyline about image-based abuse is introduced. Schoolgirl Sabine shares an intimate photo of herself in her underwear with her boyfriend, Dane. When their relationship ends, Dane shares the image and her phone number with a few of his friends, which results in Sabine receiving an online torrent of abuse and explicit photos. The following episodes unpack this event from a range of angles that offer parents and carers an insight into what this means for young people, the different ways they manage cyber bullying and the messages they should be sharing about these crucial issues.
The program does this with humility, a little humour and a deeply sensitive approach. As a resource for the community on how to deal with image-based abuse, The Heights is one of the best I have seen. It informs and educates about image-based abuse and the challenges of the modern lives of young people without the hype, fear and moralising.
If you have a teenager and find it hard to talk about the reality of technology in their lives and issues such as image-based abuse and online grooming, sitting down and watching The Heights to prompt a conversation is an excellent approach.
One key scene stood out for me.
Sabine’s friend, Mitch, comes home and is talking to Sabine’s friend on the phone. His mum asks who he is speaking too, and he says that it is Sabine’s friend and they are going through some drama. His mum presses him and he explains, “Sabine was seeing this guy Dane…Sabine took a pic when they were together and sent it to him…and anyway they broke up and Dane sent them out”.
“Without her permission?” his mum asks.
“Yeah, and now they are everywhere,” says Mitch. “And people are saying stuff…she shouldn’t have sent them. If she didn’t want anyone to see it, she shouldn’t have sent it to him. You know, she shouldn’t have taken it in the first place.”
Mitch’s mum’s response is there for all parents to listen to and learn from.
“Mitch … Sabine trusted someone she was in a relationship with and he completely betrayed that trust. For you to turn it around and make it her fault is inexcusable. Listen to me because I mean this. That attitude is toxic. Women are never responsible for men harassing them. Am I clear?”
When Mitch says, “But in my defence, I didn’t actually do anything wrong. I didn’t send it to anyone.”
She replies, “Not doing anything isn’t neutral. That’s still a choice. And do you think it’s the right one?”
“So, what are you going to do about it?” she demands.
This scene presents a very realistic and powerful example of how children and young people who’ve been bullied are so often themselves blamed in relation to image-based abuse and, through Mitch’s mum, we are given a clear and definitive answer as to why this is not the case.
The storyline further unpacks the impact and process of reporting such as event to police. It delves into the way peers can support each other, but also looks at the nuanced ways that this also often isn’t enough. Confiding in and gaining the help of a trusted adult or parent is crucial.
Home and Away has also introduced a recent plot line where Bella (who herself has vulnerabilities around her home life) has set up an online forum to help with her school work and, through it, meets a “mysterious stranger” online with the handle TomCat. The show examines how these relationships form and the way they can impact and influence young people. The storyline has friends expressing concern and sharing advice on what to do and the stranger also asks Bella for a photo of herself before admitting he is a 25-year-old teacher (which itself may or may not be true).
These two TV show plotlines aired in the months before the launch of SBS TV’s The Hunting on 1 August. This show uses image-based abuse as not simply a plotline, but the driving narrative for a whole TV series. It’s another chance for audiences to not just read the data and listen to the experts, but also gives us the opportunity to understand more about how the relationships around sharing images without consent happen. It also shows us how the ethical and legal framework works through the plot, in a way that we can understand and apply to our own lives.
By tackling these issues and representing them in ways that are realistic and represent the challenges, risks and responses, these shows help us become less afraid and more capable and knowledgeable about how to deal with these issues in our lives.
So, what can parents and carers do?
- Watch these shows. They will take away some of the imagined fear, replace it with a known fear and provide you with words and ways of handling and talking about it with your own children.
- Watch these shows with your children. If your children are old enough, watching the show and having a chat about it afterwards is an excellent way to reinforce the message and support them to know that you understand the issues now and can offer help.
- Understand that these are issues we need to talk about as a community. We don’t have to hide away in shame; they are on our screens and not something that will only ever happen to others. The way we can help our children is by talking to other adults about these issues, sharing how we talk about it with our children and creating expectations around trust, respect and how we conduct relationships with each other. We are role models. Our children learn this through us best of all.
By Dan Donahoo, Senior Advisor, Alannah & Madeline Foundation