How Can We Help Teenage Girls to Navigate the Online World?

Teenage girls are judged on their looks, weight, make-up and clothes. JUSTINE CARBERY reveals why cyber bullying has escalated, and how girls can learn to navigate their online life …

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” So runs the famous first line of LP Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between. Life for girls in 21st-century Ireland seems at first glance to have improved greatly with Irish teenage girls having more freedom, more access to education, more rights, more disposable income, with more opportunities to follow their dreams. They are unencumbered by religious oppression, gender inequality and political disenfranchisement. But are they happier?

Girls are judged on their weight, their looks, their make-up, their accessories. Many studies have shown that this constant state of comparing oneself to others is leading to increased feelings of depression, anxiety, poor body image and loneliness. Whereas ten years ago the “look” was super-skinny “heroin-chic” now it’s the super-toned, big boobs, big bum, big lips type that garners most respect. And this has led to the dangerous trend of ever-younger girls accessing body modification surgeries such as breast, buttock and lip augmentation. It’s so hard for today’s teens to accept themselves just as they are, imperfections and all when they face constant updates on how perfect they should look.

Adolescents try to establish themselves through prestige and status symbols – wearing the right clothes, having the right possessions, from shoes to make-up to sunglasses, making it difficult for anybody who wants to stand out, be different, be themselves. This has always been the case but now social media has notched it up a hundredfold. Real life and real-life experiences have given way to online profiles, online friendships, online communication. Enslaved to this online faux-reality, they judge and are judged, not only by their close friends and associates, but also by the wider internet community. Jealousy and envy – while normal emotions – can wreak havoc on teen brains if they dwell on what someone else has possessed or has experienced, that they themselves have not. And because people tend to post only the positive things that they experience, it can appear to the reader that other people lead more exciting lives than they do. And this can feed into depression, loneliness, anger.

Add to this the hyper-connectivity of their lives and the pressures mount. The 24/7 nature of social media can negatively impact teens, especially those who are already struggling. There is no off time. You see your friends having an amazing time, all the time. And you might not be included. You know with depressing certainty when you’re being ignored. Everyone needs a respite from the demands of intimacy and connection; time alone to regroup, replenish and just chill out. When you don’t have that, it’s easy to become emotionally depleted; fertile ground for anxiety to breed.

And all this time online means time lost with real people. Family time has been eroded, hanging out an outmoded pastime. Teenage girls, already riddled with self-doubt and insecurities, have lost the mental muscle to conduct in-person conversations. Seduced by the lure of the internet, they lean away from traditional means of communication and rely more heavily on their online world. When angry or upset, they eschew conversations with people around them, but rather plug in and vent virtually. And then they wonder why they feel so isolated and alone.

This exclusion can lead to bullying and the problem is that nowadays it has become easier to be cruel. Bullies and mean girls have been around forever, but technology now gives them a whole new platform for their actions. No longer limited to schoolyards or street corners, the modern-day bullying has migrated to cyberspace and the scope is vast, in terms of means as well as the content. Cyberbullying can include hateful messages conveyed through text messages, phone calls, emails, instant messengers, social media platforms, or in chat rooms. It varies from posting hurtful words, derogatory comments, posting fake information on public forums or blogs, hacking accounts for personal vendetta to revenge porn, which is posting sexually explicit images or videos of a person on the Internet, typically by a former sexual partner, without the consent of the subject and in order to cause them distress or embarrassment. Bullies might invite their target to a chat room or group conversation created for the sole purpose of hurling abuse at him or her. Conversely, exclusion from a popular group chat is the online equivalent of being picked last in gym class.

The danger of cyberbullying is that it can take place anywhere, anytime, and the bully does not need to be face-to-face with their victim. This means that attacks are often more vicious and cruel. Cyberbullying, just like all types of bullying, can be incredibly damaging to a person’s self-esteem, social skills and confidence and the impact of such acts can be catastrophic, especially for young adults. On WhatsApp, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook online polls are conducted to body shame, and groups are made to spread false rumours or share morphed pictures and videos. What teen would have the wherewithal, confidence and strength to withstand such a barrage of viciousness?

A survey conducted by YouGov has revealed that Irish teens are bullied online more than teens in other countries. Specifically, the survey conducted found that one in four Irish teens have experienced cyberbullying, while in the other ten countries surveyed it was around one in five people who have experienced cyberbullying.

“You’re fat and ugly and no-one likes you”, “Slut Slag Whore”, “Why are you still breathing”, “Go hang yourself.” These are just some of the taunts that Nicole Fox’s tormentors posted online, starting when she was at school and continuing into her twenties. “Poor Coco, she never did them any harm. They were just jealous,” her devastated mother Jackie says. “They never left her alone. 24/7 they harassed and bullied her, online and in real life, burning her with cigarettes, knocking over her drinks at the nightclub, pushing her so hard against a table once they dislocated her hip. It was relentless. They told her if she put her head outside the door again they would put her on life-support”. And they did.

Jackie and her son Lee, Coco’s 14-year-old brother, came home from school to find Coco hanging in the hallway of their house in Clondalkin. They desperately tried to revive her, while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. “She was still warm,” Jackie says. “I just kept begging her not to go, to hang on. I couldn’t bear it.” Two days later, on January 20 2018, her organs failed and she slipped away. Coco was just 21, beautiful, funny, affectionate, Jackie’s best friend and beloved daughter and she was gone. Forever. And to this day Jackie has to endure seeing her daughter’s tormentors walking around the neighbourhood, scot-free, no remorse. Spurred on by her devastation and anger at a system that allowed such abuse to take place without repercussions, Jackie took her case to the Dáil. Jackie wants to see an update to the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act to take account of abuse via social media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and WhatsApp.

The Harassment, Harmful Communications & Related Offences Bill 2017 is currently making its way through the Oireachtas. The legislation – also known as “Coco’s Law” – will consolidate and reform the criminal law concerning harmful communications, including electronic communications. If anyone can doubt the importance of such legislation, just read Jackie’s Facebook post on the first anniversary of Nicole’s death.

“What I would do to see you smile, to hear you laugh, to hold you tight … I love you more than words can say … I’m lying on your bed devastated just wishing I could have you back. I love you my princess and I will be forever heartbroken.”

No one should ever have to go through this. Ever.

Cyberbullies can target anyone, especially someone perceived to be already vulnerable, or different from the crowd. And because of the anonymity, they can get away with racist and homophobic comments they wouldn’t get away with in real life. Sandy O’Reilly’s son Sean was just 13 when he was subjected to intense online scrutiny and bullying in school. His classmates hacked his computer, accessed his search history, which included coming-out stories, gay sites, LGBT advice forums, and they decided to out him to the whole school. He was devastated that the decision to come out had been wrested from his hands rendering him suicidal. He really felt like he couldn’t go on. He left the school that day and has never returned. Ironically the same school does the Darkness Into Light walk, yet one of their own was bullied systematically and relentlessly by the very same pupils.

Or read the harrowing testimony given by the devastated mother of 14-year-old murder victim Ana Kriegel. Giving evidence at the Circuit Criminal Court, Geraldine Kriegel described how Ana was routinely made fun of because she was adopted and had a number of problems with hearing and eyesight, and that she had received an online death threat in the months leading up to her death. And who can forget tragic 13-year-old Erin Gallagher who took her own life after vicious online bullying, followed weeks later by her devastated sister Shannon? Or 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley, from Leitrim, who lost her life after being bullied relentlessly online.

Melanie Murphy, an Irish award-winning filmmaker and lifestyle YouTuber has written extensively about growing up and the impact of Social Media in her first book, Fully Functioning Human (Almost) – a memoir full of advice for young people growing up in this digital age. She has had to cultivate a thick skin after haters posted malicious lies and rumours about her, her boyfriend and her father online. These days she mutes, deletes, blocks and ignores all negative stuff. She hides certain insult words like “ugly”, “fat” etc to avoid having to see their spurious comments. She chooses her online friends carefully, those people who have something positive to say, who chose to use their influence in a healing positive way.

“You wouldn’t invite horrible people into your home, don’t invite them into your internet space either,” she advises. “There are plenty of good role models out there but you have to look for them.” She follows the likes of Matt Haig, who talks openly about his mental health issues, or Rozanna Purcell who is honest about her stretch marks, cellulite etc. as well as posting positive, life-affirming stuff.

Murphy understands the teen desire to have the latest make-up, clothes, brands. She “gets” the popularity of the Kardashians/Jenners. Teenage girls are missing out on the old feeling of community. They want to belong. They want to find their tribe and the internet provides this for them, in a society that is less community-focused. With parents often working long hours and peers hunched over keyboards instead of hanging around street corners or shopping centres, today’s teens are feeling isolated and disconnected. So they look for that connection online. But they mistake online friends for real friends. They equate their likeability with the numbers of likes they receive. They rate themselves according to their online social status.

Murphy feels we will have to embrace social media, as it is here to stay but we should be smarter consumers of technology, manage the chokehold of the internet and curate our online selves more carefully. Some of her tips include scheduling time for proper human experiences, diversifying our media feeds and not being a slave to numbers. She advocates sharing for the sake of sharing, not for validation. But she has only learnt these lessons through experience. In the past, media moulded her. Now she moulds her media. In her book, she says social media “can be enriching and educational and can bring us new relationships and hobbies – but depending on how we interact with it, it can also limit our experience of life and lead us to become lazy, self-involved, self-hating, socially awkward.” She has deliberately carved out time for other pastimes and interests to counteract time spent online. She has always loved reading and writing and her latest achievement is writing fiction. Her debut novel If Only is due out later this year.

Because of easy access, children and teens are exposed to an alarming array of images, especially sexual content, on the internet. Porn is readily available and teenage boys are being fed unrealistic images of what intimacy should look like, while girls are expected to deliver on the promises offered onscreen. Social media users, like those on Instagram, often portray teens and young women in kissy selfie poses and intentionally erotic angles. When they are exposed to these messages enough, they can’t help but internalise them and make them their own.

And, sadly, these unhealthy messages shape the values, attitudes, and beliefs they come to hold about themselves and the world.

Allied to this is the worrying trend of sexting among Irish teens. According to the latest annual digital trend report by Zeeko, an internet safety start-up company based at Nova UCD, Irish teenagers emerged as the fourth most prolific “sexters” in the EU. Almost half of the teenagers in their final year at school say they have participated in sexting, with boys more likely to share intimate photos than girls. Teens have always engaged in risky behaviour and are very influenced by their peer group. When you’re young, all you want to do is fit in, so it is understandable that you might get drawn into sending intimate images of yourself, afraid to be the only one who doesn’t do it, afraid of being called frigid. Or they may be in love. It’s easy to cave to the pressure when you think “this is the one.”
Or they may not be thinking straight. The prefrontal cortex part of the brain is responsible for problem-solving, impulse control, and weighing up options. Unfortunately for teens, this area of the brain is not fully developed. So sometimes they do stupid things.
They might get a thrill from sending a picture and feel all grown-up but they may not see the longterm consequences of that picture being passed on or being used for blackmail
if the relationship flounders. Threats of exposure, shaming and humiliation can follow and for vulnerable teens already worried about their standing within their social group, this pressure and fear can prove too much.

Many teens may not be aware that sexting involving people under 18 is illegal. The Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998 will come into effect if someone under 18 creates, shares or even just receives a sexually explicit image. As Webwise, the Irish Internet Safety Awareness Centre explains to teenagers on the Watchyourspace website: “Any image that shows a child engaged in sexual activity, or that focuses on the genital region of a child is sexually explicit and illegal.” Soon, Coco’s Law will make online harassment of anybody of any age illegal too. Unfortunately, it won’t bring Nicole Fox back, or Erin Gallagher, or Ana Kriegel, or Ciara Pugsley, but it may save other people from suffering the same fate, and other families from experiencing such incomprehensible grief.

It’s hard to put old heads on young shoulders but for teenage girls, life doesn’t have to be so difficult. Used with caution, social media can enhance lives if we learn to manage it well.

Justine Carbery

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