There are few in Ireland who haven't been shocked by the spate of teen suicides in recent months as a result of bullying. It's always heartbreaking when so much potential is quenched seemingly without warning. And it's horrifying to think that such innoccuous tools as social networking sites could be used to such devestating effect.
At the same time, I imagine many of us can empathise with the victims' positions. It's a rare few who have never experienced the cruelty of exclusion, barbed words and physical torment. It's a rare few who don't understand the isolation and desperation of such a target.
Nobody can suggest that bullying is anything new. The novel feature in these cases has been the incorporation of social media. An NUI Maynooth study published in November found that young people believe cyber-bullying to be more damaging than its traditional counterpart, largely due to its inescapability - abuse follows the victim wherever she goes and is recorded indefinitely.
Various government officials have responded with calls for regulation, including self-regulation, of social media sites. Facebook has been held up as a good example of an organising responding to these concerns with concrete actions, having implemented a number of safeguards to protect users. However the founder of the website implicated in the cases of Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley, Ask.fm, has been resistant to these suggestions, arguing that his site is just another means of communication "[the] same as [a] phone, [the] same as [a] piece of paper and [a] pen". Furthermore, he claims, it's Irish youth culture we should be looking at - "Its not about the site, the problem is about education, about moral values."
It baffles me that our sole response to this crisis has been to try to shut down communication - either by advising victims of abuse simply to switch off phones and computers, or attempting to restrict the kind of content permitted on these sites. Even if completely effective, unlikely as that is, the most these measures can do is ensure bullying continues only through traditional channels. As anyone who's suffered traditional bullying can attest, that's no feat to be proud of.
Is there not room for more hope and imagination here? Could this not be an opportunity to tackle the beliefs and attitudes that underpin the way young people treat one another?
I have no idea how these latest victims felt and whether things could have played out differently to avoid their tragedies. Every situation is unique and clearly the challenges they faced were beyond bearing. The most I can offer is my own experience as a teenage girl in Ireland and what it's taught me about the nasty side of our youth culture.
At 14 I was a miserable, gangly late-developer who wasn't terribly socially savvy. I'd been long known as a goodie two-shoes and was desperate to shed that identity, so when I returned from the summer holidays with my first proper boyfriend - a couple of years older than me and widely regarded as Bad News - I was excited to see how my image would change.
Predictably, things didn't play out as I'd hoped. The predominant reaction I got from my peers and adults alike was one of disgust. Locals expressed concern to my parents. Girls would follow me home from school calling me a slut, or pass me notes in class detailing my faults with excruciating precision. At home abuse would continue with texts and prank phone calls. I arrived at school one morning to receive a public dressing-down by the headmistress for bringing the school into disrepute. A psychologist I was sent to gave a look of revulsion when I admitted to the relationship, and so I vowed never to confide in her about the pressure I was under to perform sexually and how that made me feel.
This was all before social media took off, so I luckily never experienced online attacks. I'm not sure how much difference it would have made. While the Maynooth study cites inescapability as a particularly pernicious feature of cyber-bullying, I was perfectly capable of maintaining the assault all by myself. The shame I felt was unrelenting and something that has stayed with me for years.
Which brings me to the point of this self-indulgent biography. Even when the bullying stopped I was still tormented. Even when the tell-a-teacher strategy was outwardly successful - the main culprits apologised and desisted - it made no real difference to me. Nobody had addressed the content of the bullying. Nobody had told me that I was in fact very normal, behaving in a completely typical way. It was never suggested that I did not deserve the bullying. It was never suggested that I was fundamentally a good person. The seeds of self-loathing had been planted in me and there were no guidelines on how to recognise them, much less uproot them.
Anti-bullying strategies should be an absolute minimum requirement in schools. And perhaps there is a need for regulation of online spaces. But what my experience has taught me is that we cannot seriously take ourselves to be combating the hell so many young people suffer through while completely ignoring the content of harassment. We need open and honest discussion of why it is certain behaviours and identities are seen as deserving of social reprimand in order to expose such attitudes as hateful and empower would-be victims to develop the robust self-assurance necessary to survive.
This is not the sort of change that can be effected overnight. It requires school administrations themselves, and society generally, to be permeated by a culture of acceptance so that when child is ostracised for being different they can be confident that we will be on their side. To imagine that it would take anything less than this would be an insult to these girls.
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