An Irish mum opens up about her daughter's experience with bullying on social media, which led her on a path to self-harm:
My daughter Michelle* is very tech-savvy.
She’s had a smartphone since she was 15 - she’s 18 now. She had Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, but after the problems started, she shut down her Twitter and Instagram account. She began getting nasty comments on Facebook just before she turned 16. If she put up a photograph, she would get derogatory comments.
The girls and the boys involved would form a group chat and would initially include her, almost so she would be witness to the comments. She would leave the group and they’d add her back in. It got so bad she came off Facebook but when she went back on, it got worse.
The comments being made were all about her sexuality.
She came out as bisexual at the time. Prior to that, she’d been popular in school. Her closest friend fell out with her - she became the ringleader and the instigator of things. It was very insidious.
Initially, I wasn’t aware how bad the situation was. Michelle was very quiet. She’d been cutting herself with a razor blade on her upper arms and legs, but she was able to hide the marks from me.
She confided in a teacher who let me know what was going on. She felt a lot of shame around what was happening and didn’t want to bother me as I’d just lost my job and I’ve three other children.
After the teacher came to me, Michelle started talking to me about how she was feeling. It was obvious to me how bad things had got. We got her into the healthcare system and she had to start taking medication.
I felt frightened that there was more she wasn’t telling me. I felt powerless because the school was doing what it could in trying to get to the bottom of things. They brought in a mediator who said it was just girls being silly. I just felt really sad as it was girls we had known a long time.
When Michelle was not in school, the bullying became a lot worse with social media. She could put up a picture on Facebook to find it had been copied and distorted with the face of a pig on it with her name tagged on it. The last straw came when she got a death threat via private message on Facebook.
The gardai got involved. I don’t think there’s enough information in schools about how to keep your kids safe online. At least at school she could stay away from them (bullies) but she wasn’t able to stay away from the online aspect.
In the evening, if Michelle’s phone would beep with a notification, it would be someone else tagging her in something.
Last October, she collapsed in school. The doctors said it was as a result of pure anxiety. She moved from that school and is now doing here Leaving Cert at a centre where kids who’ve had problems finish school — she’s really supported there.
She’s still in therapy and on medication — but she’s staying off line.
My advice to parents is to be around your children when they’re using phones. I started switching off the wireless box at night.
If I could go back, I would try to encourage Michelle to talk to me. I’d say to parents, keeping trying to talk to your children and check in with the school to see if they’re doing okay. The knock-on effect is that Michelle’s confidence has been knocked.
She’s looking to go to college to study things that would keep her more isolated and away from people. I’m still hopeful that next year, she will come back into having more confidence again. It’s one of those clichés in ways, it’s made her stronger. There are aspects to her that changed because they had to. It’s given her survival skills, but it’s been a harsh lesson to learn.
All names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.
If you have been affected by the issues raised in this article please contact the Samaritans on 116123 for support or visit the website on www.samaritans.org.