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Saturday 25 March 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Cyberbullying 'Girls' lives can be ripped apart by angry boys who can't have them'
We need to be watchful of the dark side of human nature that is prone to destroying others so they can feel superior, writes Stella O’Malley.

BULLYING HAS TAKEN a dark turn and, more than anything else, it is cyberbullying that seems to strike terror in the hearts of parents these days. Most parents have experienced bullying as a child, either as a target, a bystander or a bully and, although we loathe it, we can, on some level, understand it.

But the cruel, weird, relentless nature of cyberbullying unnerves parents more because many of us can’t imagine what it must feel like to be ostracised, insulted or publicly humiliated on social media. Added to that, the belief that these posts can never be deleted tends to completely overwhelm parents.

Today’s children communicate in images

We tell our kids never to post pictures of themselves online, but posting pictures has become so normalised that this is like asking kids not to use Google or not to use social media. Kids communicate in images these days.

They don’t post “I’m at the cinema”, they post a picture of the cinema; they don’t post that they are enjoying a hot chocolate with pals, they post a picture of
smiling faces with hot chocolate in the centre. The first foray into flirting is via social media these days. It’s easier for a tween or teenager to flirt with a suggestive message that has been perfectly constructed with the help of five pals than to try to spontaneously flirt “irl”.

The problem with this is that the most current research suggests that the more social networking a preteen does, the more socially nervous they become. Not only that, but if children are curtailed too much in their social lives, then their sexuality will be channelled online.

Teenagers are developing sexually and they will want to explore their sexuality; they are either going to do it at the local disco or online, and parents need to consider which is more appropriate.

FaceTime can become increasingly intimate

When Amy was 15 she fell madly in love with Stephen. He was the coolest guy in her year and everyone fancied him. One day Stephen stopped Amy at her locker and asked to meet her after school. “I was on cloud nine,” she said. “I thought it was the best day of my life.”

They became boyfriend and girlfriend and they used to FaceTime each other last thing at night to say good night. Of course Amy always made sure she looked good for the FaceTime dates. Stephen always showered her with lovely compliments and so, as time went on, the FaceTime became more intimate.

Stephen used to beg Amy for some pictures; he always told her how beautiful she looked. Every single day he would ask her to send him a picture and she often did – funny ones and silly ones – but eventually the constant requests wore Amy down and the pictures she sent became more and more suggestive. First, wearing revealing tops, then a quick flirtatious glimpse here and there and eventually no top at all.

A year or so later, Amy and Stephen broke up because Stephen became jealous and possessive. Amy thought the whole thing was done and dusted and it never even entered her head that she could be a victim of revenge porn until she saw her photos on social media.

How can you tell your parents your breasts are all over social media?

Stephen pretended that Amy was sending him nude pictures in a bid to get him back. The comments underneath her pictures are forever burned on her brain:

Apparently I was a ‘desperate slut’ and a ‘skanky whore that would give you warts’” said Amy. “These were comments from horrible little boys from the year below me who had probably never even been kissed. When people that I actually knew and liked made nasty comments I was devastated.

Amy couldn’t bring herself to tell her parents. “How do you tell your parents that your bare breasts are all over social media and everyone thinks you are a skanky slut?” She did tell her parents that she was being bullied but when they complained to the school of course the teachers knew nothing about it.

When she convinced her mother to let her change school the images followed her. Amy started self-harming. She hated herself for being such a fool and she hated herself because she thought everyone else did. One particularly horrible day a boy from her new school posted a “hilarious” video that supposedly showed Amy having sex with dogs. Of course the video wasn’t true but the rumour mill rushed around the school that she did it with dogs. Suddenly everyone was whistling at Amy as if she was a dog.

The mixture of rage and humiliation spurred Amy to drink a bottle of vodka and slash her wrists. As Amy says:

To this day, I’m not sure if I wanted to kill myself or if I just wanted to hurt myself and make everyone pay for their horrible comments. After my suicide attempt my mother found me a good therapist and, although we’ve had a few false starts, we are now getting on really well and I feel a glimmer of hope about my future. I’m not so disturbed by pictures of me are online – as far I’m concerned, anyone who goes mad searching for these pictures and judges me on them are probably not the sort of person I would respect.

Digital reputation management

There are certain procedures available on social media to block someone from your account, to complain about a page and to get a post or a page deleted, and I explore these in detail my new book Bully-Proof Kids. But they are often slow, not in any way foolproof, and many, many people fall through the cracks.

However, on the other hand, there are also agencies that you can pay to help manage your online profile and they will do this for you very effectively. Digital reputation management is a new and growing field – companies are paid to “game” Google so that negative stories and images can be hidden by swamping the online identity with positive stories and images.

Beautiful girls’ lives can be ripped apart by angry boys who can’t have them and by jealous girls who know they can never hope to be as alluring. As the French writer André Breton wrote of the Salem witch trials:

At the word witch, we imagine the horrible old crones from Macbeth. But the cruel trials witches suffered teach us the opposite. Many perished precisely because they were young and beautiful.

If we look at the Salem Witch Trials, the Ku Klux Klan and the horrors of World War II, we soon see how ordinary, hitherto decent people can become infected by other people’s cruelty. We need to be watchful of the dark side of human nature that is prone to destroying others so they can feel superior and we also need to look out for our kids who haven’t yet gained much wisdom or experience and so are pretty much bound to make some silly mistakes online. As the saying goes, “To be old and wise, you must first be young and foolish.”

Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist, writer and public speaker with over fifteen years’ experience as a mental health professional.  Much of Stella’s counselling and teaching work is with parents and young people. She is the author of the bestselling book Cotton Wool Kids – what’s making Irish parents paranoid?. Her latest book is Bully-Proof Kids – practical tools to help your child to grow up confident, assertive and strong. It’s published by Gill Books.

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