Sunday 21 April 2019

How a teen and his mother hit back at the online bullies

Quaint, serene and unspoiled, the village of Dromahair in Co Leitrim is wrapped in a cloak of calm from one end of the year to the next.

Last Sunday, though, the peace was shattered as the grief-stricken community said farewell to a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

Ciara Pugsley had taken her own life, with her family saying she was driven to suicide by the "appalling evil" of internet bullying.

Speaking on behalf of Ciara's family, Eugene O'Neill told those gathered for the young schoolgirl's funeral, "Ciara did not want to die. She enjoyed living and had so much more living to do. She was driven to it.

"I appeal to those involved in this dreadful activity to see the devastating consequences of their malicious comments."

Ironically, young people took to Facebook this week to express their sadness at Ciara's death, with a number revealing that they are currently the victims of online bullying themselves. It's thought that around 50,000 Irish teenagers have been exposed to the scourge in recent years.

For one teenager from the south of the country, the level of abuse was particularly sinister. While he says he never felt suicidal, 16-year-old Luke (not his real name) revealed it led to bouts of depression and self-harm.

A bubbly singer and musician, Luke's passion was performing in school concerts -- and at the age of 15, the redhead decided he'd go in search of other young musicians in the area who might share his vision.

"I thought it would be fun to try and get a band together so I signed up to Facebook and asked friends to spread the word."

"Initially, my friends started to poke fun at me, but not in an evil way. They nicknamed me 'Simply Red' and I was fine with that. Quickly, though, I was getting messages from users who weren't local, saying stuff like 'Who wants to pay money to see a useless fat redhead?'"

Embarrassed, Luke kept the cyber-bullying to himself and didn't respond.

"I remember one Saturday going to my local library to use the internet and finding myself unable to breathe after reading some sick comments from people I didn't even know. I couldn't understand why they were targeting me -- but I realise now that none of it was my fault.

"If you take one of the messages on its own it might not seem hurtful, but I was getting these every day for months and gradually it starts to make you feel worthless. I started missing school, not eating or sleeping.

"Also, I had placed my mobile number on the site. I took it off once the bullying started, but I was still getting calls late at night. Also I'd get texts saying stuff like 'I'm watching you' -- it was awful. I'd jump every time my mobile made a sound."

After four months of hell, Luke told his mother what was happening online.

"I flipped," she says. "I wanted to track down these little bastards and kick their arses.

"It's so difficult, because unlike normal bullying you can't confront those doing it. That makes it a lot darker and more difficult to deal with."

After he'd showed her the messages -- and a blog site set up to victimise him -- she visited a local garda station, with printouts of the harassment.

"The first garda we spoke to just didn't get it at all, God love him. He gave me a 10-minute lecture about children spending too much time on the internet.

"But eventually his boss came and was wonderful. Within a few weeks we had helped Luke reclaim his life and slowly his confidence is returning."

The first step taken was to contact Facebook. They deemed that some of the posts fell into the 'abusive content' category. Some of the bullies were banned, while others received warnings.

Gardaí are still attempting to track down the location of the computers from which the abusive messages were sent through their IP addresses.

"Some people ask me why I don't just abandon the internet altogether after what happened, but that's unrealistic," says Luke. "I can't allow bullies to stop me partaking in something which can be very enjoyable and in this day and age is fundamental for everyone.

"I'd advise people who are being bullied online to take control of the situation. Don't respond to these people, because that's just what they want.

"The most important thing though is to talk to someone about it before it escalates."

Since beating the bullies, Luke is trying to get on with the rest of his life. "I haven't picked up the guitar since this happened," he says, "but I'm getting there."

The Office of Internet Safety and children's welfare charity Barnardos have produced a booklet outlining what action should be taken if a young person becomes the victim of online bullying. It can be downloaded from www.internetsafety.ie or www.barnardos.ie.

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