“I’m Sarah, I want to be a journalist, and I never sat the Junior Cert.” For years, that was the standard introduction I’d give when asked to tell everyone something about myself. You see, at the age of 15, I dropped out of school for a year because I couldn’t function as a human being any more. Questions and equations were the least of my problems.
I tend not to discuss what happened to me exactly, because I’ve done it far too many times at this stage. I liked the wrong bands, was too much of a bookworm, and definitely “not exciting enough” to hang out with, yada yada yada. That said, every time I hear the word bullying crop up in conversation I tend to roll my eyes and sigh in anticipation of what’s coming. More often than not, I end up ranting at people who can’t hear me on the TV or radio.
“The kids don’t know what they’re doing”, “These websites need to be regulated”, “If they banned the mobile phones it wouldn’t happen”, they say. Of course, I can understand why parents spot venom at the likes of ask.fm (Seriously, I suggest you go and take a look, it’s vitriolic), but when are they going to realise that it’s the bullies who create the problem in the first place?
I went to hell and back because of people, not because of websites or texts. In fact, I was never texted, nor was anything ever posted online. What happened to me was entirely verbal and psychological, and nobody needed so-called modern technology to worm their way into my head until I bordered on suicidal. Nor did their parents need it to get into my mother’s.
If there’s one thing I learned from my own experience, it’s that the worst bullies are those whose parents refuse to accept what their child has become, or indeed, those whose parents are bullies themselves. You see, while I won’t deny that some kids are oblivious to the harm they’re causing, whether it be as a result of backing up a bully, or just not knowing where to draw the line, there are others who were born and raised with a sense of self-entitlement, which leads them to believe that it’s perfectly ok to be that way. It’s never stamped out, and thus they become the bullies of the workplace. Apologies to Simba and co for using their heart-warming tale as a metaphor, but it’s essentially a Circle of Life.
I eventually stopped attaching any emotion to my own experience, but I guess that tends to happen when you’ve recited a series of events for doctors, councillors, lawyers and barristers (My parents wanted to sue the school for failing in their duty of care). In all honesty, by the time we got to the barrister I’d found myself a new place to call home, with fantastic teachers and wonderful friends: I’d already lost a year of my teens to bullies, I wasn’t going to let them take up any more of my precious time.
I was one of the lucky ones. I got through it and, to an extent, over it. “Stays with you, doesn’t it?”, a colleague knowingly nodded when I finally shared the tale just before Christmas, and of course, she was spot on. It does. Except that now, I consider it the best thing that ever happened to me, because it made me stronger, and more determined than ever to prove that the frumpy frizzy haired bookworm, who was damn proud to do well in school, could go on to do ten times better in life.
Sadly, for schoolgirls like Phoebe Prince, Hannah Smith, Erin and Shauna Gallagher, and indeed many more like them, that’s not an option. They all died because people tormented them until they could take no more. They died because bullies, as they have since Day 1, will ALWAYS find a way to target their prey. To them, their victims are walking targets, and sure you never know, maybe their accomplices will be next.
Quite a long time after I’d recovered, I started to wonder if it really had been all in my head. After all, that’s what I’d been told at the time, despite the catalogue of incidents one very supportive and observant teacher had kept. Then the stories started to trickle through, of people who’d had similar experiences with the same person, both before and long after me. Eventually, I came to realise that I had watched it happen to several people around me before I became the target.
There were no phones or laptops, just lies, hushed words, and the venom of pre-teen vixens, with little more concerning them than the control they could exercise over those meek and mild classmates who would do as they were told. One step out of line and you were in for it: Mean Girls hit the nail on the head.
So you see, while I can understand why there are calls for increased regulation, and agree that sites like ask.fm should be shut down, I know in my heart that it simply won’t be enough. Like a stubborn weed, bullying is something that needs to be tackled at the root. Take away their laptops, their phones and their internet, and the bullies will still find a way to their target. The kids aren’t the only ones tormenting their peers.
It’s about time we faced up to the fact that people are the real problem here, and until the parents, friends, teachers, colleagues and bosses of this world are willing to get off the fence, and actually do something about bullying, people will continue to break, and more innocent lives will be lost.
Websites alone don’t kill people, they merely give the bullies who use them extra ammunition to do so, and the sooner that becomes the rhetoric of the media the better: Maybe, just maybe, we can start to make some real headway then.
DISCLAIMER: This post in no way intends to discredit the idea that websites do harm, or the idea that technology grants bullies a lot of power. Nor, as has been suggested on Twitter, is it based on the same logic as the NRA’s rhetoric about guns. The reaction to this piece evidences the power of technology in itself.
I’m sharing a personal experience, in order to highlight something I feel is consistently overlooked when the world heads off on a witch hunt. It’s my opinion, nothing more, nothing less: I will never ever claim to be an authority on everyone’s experience.
The sole purpose of this piece was to share my belief that removing technology from the equation might help, but it will not change the core issue: Some people believe they have a right to make others feel worthless, regardless of the medium they use, and, in my opinion, no form of legislation regulating social media is going to change that.
And for the record, I never thought this would come into the equation, but I am completely anti-gun.