‘Sometimes at night, I’d cry myself to sleep. I’d feel invisible to everyone else and I’d question why I’m here. I was getting so much hatred from everyone. I felt empty inside’.
Khushal Shah was 13 when he became the victim of cyberbullies. Their tactics included setting up a fake Facebook account in Khushal’s name and using it to post content best described as disturbing. This went on for some time and got so bad that the entire year group at Khushal’s school turned against him. Isolated, victimised and encountering intense animosity, this is an episode that could have had a tragic ending.
Khushal beat the bullies and is using his experiences to help others. Now 17, he heads up cyber-engagement at the Anti-Bullying Alliance and has spent recent days sharing his story as part of the Anti-Bullying Week initiative.
It’s the kind of story we’re familiar with. Such instances aren’t as rare as you might imagine.
Many parents assume their children are safe online, but cyberbullying is becoming a major problem. It can take different forms and not all are as serious as that which Khushal encountered or the online abuse that led 14-year-old Hannah Smith to take her own life this summer. But as parents, and as mental health professionals, it’s of the utmost importance that this is seen for the serious issue that it is and that steps are taken in order to reduce the risks.
Bullying has changed. It’s no longer about being beaten up behind the bike sheds, although such things do still occur. These days, young people can be bullied in their bedrooms. Bullying is becoming more psychological in its nature and, as a result, is easier to conceal. Cyberbullying is getting out of hand and is at the root of a lot of the issues encountered here.
It could involve trolling, cyber-stalking or sending messages that are abusive or sexual in nature. It’s often based around the victim’s look or image. It’s cruel and designed to provoke a reaction. There’s a fine line between banter and bullying and it’s a line that’s being crossed more and more. Facebook and other social networking sites are proving problematic. For a bully, it’s easier to make a hurtful statement from behind a computer screen than to do it face-to-face. For the victim, such instances lead to exclusion and alienation. For a parent, spotting the signs isn’t always a simple matter.
Is this a problem that can be solved? Bullies have always been in our midst but there are steps that we can take to keep our children safe. For one thing, we can support people like Khushal and the groups campaigning for a future without bullying. It’s about informing and educating, using the latest technologies to promote positive communications and ensuring that EVERYONE around us knows that bullying is unacceptable.
For those who do become victims, the solution lies in support and understanding; reminding children that they’re loved, valued and respected; doing things together, as a family, and engaging in activities that are meaningful and conducted in the real world rather than the online one. It’s important to encourage broad social contact and to ensure that children don’t become too dependent on one particular group. Being vigilant is vital.
Young people must be allowed to explore online, make no mistake about it. But adults must recognise that there are inherent dangers and take precautions to limit them.
Cyberbullying is a problem, as Khushal has proved. It’s up to all of us to solve it.