It was halfway through her first year at secondary school that Georgia Woods started to be bullied. “I’d originally been really popular,” she says, recalling the events of three years ago, “but just after my 12th birthday, these girls started calling me stuck-up and a snob.” The name calling got worse, and gradually Georgia was ostracised by the rest of the class and eventually the whole school year group. But, as if that wasn’t bad enough, things were about to take an even more pernicious turn as the bullying went online.
“At first I didn’t know about it. My mum had let me join [the social networking site] Bebo as long as she held the password and updated my profile,” says Georgia. “She knew I had been having arguments with friends at school so she
clicked on one of the people on my wall and it went through to a page about how much everyone hated me. I felt really bad. I thought, ‘Why are they saying that?’ But finally I started to believe that what they said was true. The hardest bit was that I was so alone.”
Online petitions and endless vicious emails followed; Georgia became
withdrawn and stopped eating “because they kept calling me fat and ugly”. Things came to a head when she was away on a school trip and her parents decided to redecorate her bedroom. While moving the furniture around, they found a torn-out page from her diary in which she had detailed an attempt to hang herself.
Georgia had become another victim of cyberbullying, a way of humiliating, distressing and harassing a target using digital means. This can range from
bombarding them with threatening or insulting text messages and emails to more sophisticated means of intimidation: hacking into someone’s social network account and uploading false information on their profile (known as Facebook-raping or “fraping”) is common, as is setting up pages dedicated to a hate campaign against a particular person.
And Georgia certainly was not alone — the anti-bullying campaign group Beatbullying estimates that 30 per cent of 11-16 year-olds have been cyberbullied, and girls are more than twice as likely to be targeted than boys. Shockingly, since 2009, when the organisation set up a cyber-mentoring site to support and help those who had been cyberbullied, they have had a million young people contact them.
“Even children as young as nine or 10 have Facebook pages,” says Sherry Adhami, of Beatbullying. “We need to have early intervention and we need to understand that it isn’t just a schools issue. We need to educate the whole community about what happens.”
To those who have not experienced it, cyberbullying can sound less serious than other forms of bullying: it is not, for example, physical. Yet experts believe that it can be psychologically more insidious, as it is so persistent and leaves its targets without a safe haven.
“So many children are constantly connected to their peer group — they spend a lot of time on sites such as Facebook, they sleep with their mobiles under their pillow,” says Will Gardner, CEO of Childnet International, an organisation that aims to make the internet safer for children.
“A bully can reach their target 24/7 — victims cannot get away from it.”
Moreover, the target may not even know who is instigating the bullying. “The bully could be anonymous, which is very distressing,” says Gardner, “and the target may not know who else is in on the joke – who is laughing at it.”
The sheer reach of the internet also means that a bullying campaign can spread beyond a child’s immediate social group to people in other cities and other countries, adding to the feeling of isolation.
Childnet has produced a film — Let’s Fight it Together — that has been shown in schools to get across the effects that cyberbullying can have on its victims.
Surprisingly, Gardner says, cyberbullies aren’t always aware of the distress their actions can cause. “We do come across people saying, ‘It was just a joke, it didn’t mean anything,’ ” he says. “Technology is bringing us closer together but there is still a distance. I might send you something I think is very funny, but you don’t – and I can’t see your reaction.”
Surprisingly, this was the reaction of Georgia Woods’s tormentors. Never having come across cyberbullying before, Georgia’s parents were initially uncertain how to respond to events, other than to delete Georgia’s Bebo page. But her mother, Sarah-Jane, was galvanised into action when she found out about Georgia’s suicide attempt.
She contacted the school, who were very supportive, and arranged for Georgia to receive counselling through Beatbullying. Following an appearance on Newsround in which Georgia talked about being bullied, one of the girls involved approached her and said that she had no idea that what they were doing had upset her so much.
Remarkably, Georgia has become friends with five of the former bullies and she is now one of Beatbullying’s cyber-mentors, offering confidential support to other targets of bullying at school and online. “I think,” she says with astonishing magnanimity, “we needed to move forward. I don’t like to dwell on the negative.”
What to do
Targets should talk to someone — ideally a parent or teacher. Thanks to campaigns by Beatbullying and Childnet, among others, many schools are very well-informed about cyberbullying and will have policies in place to deal with it.
Keep the texts, emails and website addresses that are included in the bullying as, unlike other forms of bullying, they provide hard evidence of what has taken place and digital footprints that can link them to the perpetrators.
Report any abuse on a social networking site to the moderator – most sites have a “report” button to make this easy. Keep a log of any incidents.
Parents should discuss internet use with their children and gauge ways of working with them to keep them safe on the internet.