Life after bullying
Just about anyone is fair game for the growing number of adults who behave like bold schoolyard bullies in cyberspace. Alison O'Riordan hears how four people coped.
Model for Andrea Roche Modelling
In the past two years, as my profile as a model started to rise, people I have never even met have been sending me abusive messages and insults via Facebook.
I had learnt to ignore it and block the offenders. However, the most vicious Twitter comments started in January and resumed again last month.
At first I found it bizarre, as I was targeted by two models/promotion girls from within the industry. I didn't know these girls, and I was surprised by how they were speaking about me online.
They were attacking my 2013 official calender and the type of work I do, which is swimwear, underwear and photocall modelling. Then it got nastier, with comments about my weight and appearance.
I have tried to develop a thick skin, but this was at a new level – it got very personal. I found it distressing and degrading.
I have suffered with panic attacks and anxiety over the years, for which I received counselling, but after these tweets, I couldn't sleep for two days due to stress. I was really worried that it would continue.
At first, the tweets were indirect – but they were so thinly veiled, it was obvious they were aimed at me. I was alerted to the tweets by another model.
[The bullying] kicked off in two stages: when the calendar was released, and then, last month, when I decided to react.
One of the girls, who works as a hostess, responded: "I'd rather be managing the venue than resorting to selfies [taking pictures of yourself] in my underwear to get some kind of attention LOL."
It got progressively worse from there. The messages were designed to embarrass and insult me publicly. The comments mocked my calendar and my figure, and suggested I was fake and delusional.
It began on Facebook and Twitter, then Instagram. I was called a "desperate media whore'' and told "all you ever did was get your tits out for 'The Sun'" and "shut up you HORSE''. I could not even delete these comments off my photo, as Instagram doesn't allow it. Instead, I had to report it and wait for them to remove it, which took two days.
My weight was then mocked when a friend of the two girls publicly tweeted an old photo of me from a bad angle and added my name to it.
One of the models retweeted this with the message: "Wooooooah Tiffany just saw how fakkke ye are. Is this or is this not you? #porridgeStanley."
By retweeting this image, everyone within the industry saw it, along with the insults. I was degraded and hurt, but did not respond for fear of fuelling the situation. Within two hours, the newspapers rang my agency and my mobile phone to find out what was going on. Chaos ensued.
The girls denied that the original comments were aimed at me, but even if they weren't, they were clearly aimed at somebody and that is cyber-bullying. However, I am the only Irish model with a calendar, and the subsequent retweets of the photo and name-calling spoke for itself. It's been horrible.
I would say now to these faceless phantoms who prowl online: Please think before you act. There's nothing funny or cool about attacking someone online.
You don't know how much you might hurt a person or what state that person may be in emotionally.
A simple comment might affect someone who suffers from depression or anxiety 10 times more than another person.
Young people and school kids are especially vulnerable. If you can't say something nice, say nothing at all.
I have blocked the individuals in question and tried to simply forget about it. I received overwhelming support from my followers, friends and other models.
I was really touched by all the kindness that came about, and it helped me put things in perspective.
The only reason these girls could have attacked me was due to professional jealousy, as I am very busy with shoots and work full-time in the modelling industry – a rare thing in recessionary times.
Or perhaps they planned it in the hope of getting some publicity.
I still care about what's said about me online – I have to with the job I do. If a client saw a photo where people have targeted my appearance, it might affect my suitability for certain types of jobs.
It's unlikely a client would book me for a fitness shoot if I'm in the middle of a Twitter war over my weight – despite the fact that I am only a size eight with 15pc body fat.
Cyber-bullying is a growing problem worldwide. The internet has opened up channels of communication where anyone is fair game. It gives the public access to celebrities and a medium to express their opinion, good or bad.
Legislation needs to be brought in urgently. If someone was calling you names in the office coffee dock, the HR department would investigate it, but there are no regulations online.
Singer from 'The Voice of
As a singer, I have been haunted by a lifetime of bullying. From an early age, before the internet took off, I was picked on and taunted for my talent.
I first encountered serious school bullying when I took part in RTE's 'Star Stream' – a nationwide talent competition for kids. In 2002, it put me in the limelight at the age of 13. The cameras came to my school to record the show, and I was badly bullied over it. I was told I couldn't sing and called a crow.
People said that I loved myself, even though I was just doing what I loved. Girls would bash into me, pass notes to each other and write remarks on desks. This was the beginning of a lifetime of girls calling me names. As a result, I started to comfort eat and ballooned to 16 stone.
When I was 16, the situation got worse. I was bullied by a group of five girls in school in Wexford. They made my life hell, calling me fat and ugly on a daily basis.
One day, I walked into the toilets and there was a drawing of an elephant on the wall, with arrows pointing to it saying, "Kiera Byrne is a fat bitch". The drawing also implied that the bullies were going to beat me up.
At the same time, I received threats from them on Bebo. They made my life so bad that I was suicidal. I was petrified of being beaten up and hated myself because of all the names they called me. I'd cry myself to sleep and I even started to self-harm to block out the pain.
After I saw the elephant drawing, I barely went into school because I couldn't take it any more.
I appeared on 'The Voice of Ireland' in 2012 and made it to the quarter-finals. In the process, I received a lot of horrible messages on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. But as I began to dream of becoming an international singer, bullying raised its head again on web pages connected to the show.
Some days, I have a good cry after reading certain comments where hatred is directed towards me for no reason.
I was again taunted about my weight; some commented that even though I had lost five stone since my school days, I was still fat to them. I was also referred to online as a "thing".
The online bullies said I loved myself, despite being ugly and disgusting.
People were also trying to hack into my Facebook page on a constant basis, so I had to set up extra measures on my account to ensure this wouldn't happen. They then hacked into my boyfriend's account, copied our personal messages and kept putting them up online.
They wrote such horrible stuff about me that it encouraged other people to write abusive comments. I didn't know what to do, and wondered why anyone would do something like this. We eventually got the page taken down after weeks.
Facebook were really bad about doing anything about the whole situation.
I would advise young girls and boys to make sure there is nothing personal on social networking sites, even in your inbox. I was in a terrible state after this happened to me as most people in my hometown in Wexford could see all the distasteful comments.
Think twice about spilling your heart or writing about your problems in personal messages because Facebook is not really that personal.
Big changes need to be made. Online abuse is just as bad as any other form of bullying – if not worse. Penalties should be enforced.
I had to take myself away from the internet for a while as I was too scared to look at any video or my Facebook page. I couldn't take any more abuse.
The only way I coped was by talking about it, which I found very hard. I told people how I felt – that was the most important part as I could see all of this was having a bad effect on me and I was worried I would do something stupid.
I would hate to see anyone go through this alone. There are good people out there who care and want to help. I have received countless messages on Facebook from girls and boys asking for advice. It's so nice to know that they trust me and feel safe enough to tell me their story and about their pain.
So many young people have taken their lives because of cyber-bullying. It needs to be talked about openly in schools, and teenagers need to be aware of how their harsh words and bullying tactics affect others.
In December 2012, defamatory messages were posted on Twitter about businessman and political activist Declan Ganley. An out-of-court settlement was made, an apology was issued by the man in question, Kevin Barrington, and a "substantial" donation was given to the Poor Clares charity, chosen by the Libertas entrepreneur
I don't want to whinge about this, but 99.9pc of the time, I just ignore the stuff [cyber-bullying] – I don't bother acknowledging it or engaging with it. We can be over-sensitive to this, so it's important to recognise that the mob will always say mad things. And to a degree, we shouldn't be easily offended by every utterance from the mob. Otherwise, we would do nothing else but litigate all the time.
In that context, the action I took that time [January 2013] was because the utterances made by an individual were being repeated, and they were particularly unpleasant. In fairness to the individual concerned, they did offer an unreserved apology, which I accepted in good faith, and what the individual deemed a substantial donation was made. It's done and finished and is a closed issue as far as I am concerned.
Cyber-bullying is a growing problem in Ireland. The medium of broadband can be used to do good and bad, just like every other medium of human communication. It's subject to a set of rules that other forms of communication are subject to – and should be.
I don't feel that legislation needs to be introduced; the laws already there need to be used. We have pretty effective laws on defamation and libel.
One can't go around threatening to burn someone at the stake or have them beaten off the street for voicing their opinions. If that sort of thing is to happen – where people are targeted or discriminated against – there are laws which we need to use first, some which have been on the statute books for a very long time.
I see it with youngsters; it's very important not to be over-sensitive. Also, when we do engage in exchange through the electronic medium, you need to remember they are real people you are communicating with.
Something that is said anonymously clearly does not have the same value as something that is said when someone is prepared to put their name behind it.
We need to take some of the things said anonymously – unless they get particularly vicious – with a pinch of salt; perhaps we give them too much credence.
It was not pleasant at the time, but an apology has been made and it's forgotten about as far as I'm concerned.
Victim of bullying online and via text message
I should be in Fifth Year, but I haven't been to school this year due to six operations for retinal detachment and my recovery after them. I missed most of Transition Year, too, because it involved a lot of hiking and camping and I felt I couldn't go as I wasn't able to see properly – it would have been too much of a burden on the teacher and I would have held back the class.
I missed the canoeing, the overnight camps, the bonding of school friends and all the experiences of Transition Year.
In early 2010, I was diagnosed with an illness that meant I had to go on medication for months. I also had to take care of my immune system, so I stopped most sports and physical education. I began to put on weight, but I didn't tell anybody outside my family about my illness.
Then, a group of girls and boys who lived near me started to call me names. One girl had been a friend of mine in primary school and I was particularly hurt that she was the ringleader.
Over the next few months, I was called names whenever I passed them, and bricks and bottles were thrown into my garden and eggs smashed on my bedroom window.
I approached the girl I knew and asked her why she was doing this and what I had done to upset her. I told her we didn't need to be friends, but that I would like to be able to walk around my own area without being given dirty looks and called names. "Whaley Kayleigh" was their favourite.
She said she would stop and, on her own, she was fine with me. I thought that would be the end of it.
Within a week, I saw her outside a house where I was babysitting. I texted her and asked her if she wanted to come over and have a cup of tea. Within a few minutes, a group of her friends arrived. She showed the group the message and then started texting me, calling me fat and saying that if she ever saw me out again she would kill me. I realised that she was doing this to impress her friends.
The entire group came over to the house and started shouting through the letterbox, banging on the windows and doors, taunting me and texting me to go outside so they could beat me up.
After that, I received a lot of abusive texts. They told me again that they were going to kill me if they saw me out. I knew who was sending them and I told my mother. She took my phone and gave me a new number. We then sat down and talked.
My biggest question was 'Why me? What did I do?'
If there was something that I had done, apart from put on weight, I could have understood it better, but I couldn't figure it out. My mother said not to pay any heed to them. So I avoided them as much as I could.
I was very hurt at the time by all the text messages and I began to spend more and more time at home.
A friend of mine called around one afternoon and we decided that we would get a DVD and she would stay the night. We were walking to her house to get her pyjamas when we were approached by the gang. There were 12 of them.
They started taunting me and calling me names. We kept walking away with this group behind us. I could feel that they were getting more and more agitated by my lack of reaction.
Suddenly, I was grabbed by my ponytail and my head was yanked back very severely. I remember being punched, spat on and, when I tried to free myself, bitten on the arm. The attack was by one girl, with the others shouting and encouraging her.
My friend ran to get help from her father and when he arrived they shouted abuse at him, but left. I called the gardai and my mother.
The day after the attack, my mother brought me to the local shops. I was approached by a girl who told me that the attack had been recorded on mobile phones and everybody was talking about it on the internet.
It was at that moment that I knew this would never be over. If the video was going around, everybody would see it – it wouldn't be just the people who had been there that night.
I was beyond devastated. I went home to my room as I was safe there.
The bullying was also on Facebook. At first I would block the person, but then I stopped using Facebook and Twitter. I turned off my phone and my computer and didn't communicate with the outside world. I was safe in my room and, when not in school, that is where I would stay.
Immediately after the attack, my mother took me to a therapist and a homeopath to deal with my stress. I had terrible pains in my stomach, nosebleeds and was seeing black dots before my eyes – classic signs of severe stress.
I just wanted to stay in my room. Suicide did cross my mind often, but, to escape, I turned to music and listened to my iPod for hours on end.
I had tests done on my stomach, but the dots in my eyes had turned into flashing lights. I was brought back to the doctor, who referred me to a neurologist. They discovered my retina had been detached since the attack and sent me to the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital, where I was operated on immediately to try to reattach my retina.
However, it had been detached for months and my sight had been slowly fading away.
Following the operation, I had to lie face down for weeks to help the retina attach. It didn't work the first time, so they tried again, and then a third time.
During the third operation, I had a haemorrhage which bled into my eye, so they had to abort the retina attachment and seal the bleeding.
A fourth operation attempted to clean up the eye and try attachment again. This didn't work, so a fifth and then a sixth attempt were made. The last operation was last month. They used an oil to hold the retina down after attaching the retina.
Unfortunately, the lens of my eye was too badly damaged and had to be removed, along with a cataract which had built up. I will need further surgery to remove the oil and to put in an artificial lens.
The people who did this are aware of what happened but they have shown no remorse. I don't go out any more, but on the rare occasion I see any of them, they sneer or smirk. Nothing is said, as I am usually with somebody; I don't go out alone.
There was one occasion when a group who had been in the gang that attacked me started humming 'Three Blind Mice', as I was wearing black glasses after one of the operations.
I would ask the faceless bullies who hide behind screens: When you lie down at night and think about your day or week, do you not feel like a coward?
You're not able to communicate as yourself, but as a nameless nobody with nothing better to do than destroy somebody's life for no reason.
I still don't own a mobile phone to this day.