This is a tough post to write.Firstly because it’s a sensitive topic that I know near to nothing about and I don’t want to stamp all over it with my half-baked opinions. Secondly because it’s so far out of the remit of this blog, which is generally more about sandpits and playgrounds….although it starts in a playground. Thirdly because it is just a tough subject and it hurts my heart a bit to think that I may need to deal with this in less than a decade as my small children turn into small teens. So, where to begin?
I guess in the playground, which was a leafy park in Chingford. The play equipment was a little old and well-worn but perfectly usable and nice enough except for one ugly feature – the graffiti everywhere. And I mean everywhere – there were entire essays written on the slides, which may be the only essays the writers have completed lately, given that the local teens seemed more interested in hanging out on the swings than going to school. Now, I’m not one to get hung up on graffiti itself- yeah, it’s annoying but it’s generally harmless. It’s just what teenagers do. Who can honestly say that they passed their teenage years without ever scratching “I <3 Damon Albarn” into a school desk (and then going back a week later and replacing it with “I <3 Alex James”)? I don’t know if I ever did that exact thing, but it wouldn’t surprise me. Teens just feel the need to express themselves on whatever surface is handy, don’t they?
And in this instance it was the slides. But it wasn’t the graffiti itself that shocked me – it was the content. Vile, graphic and targeted, it repeatedly made assertions about three girls – using their full names – and how they were “fat slags”, friendless and ugly. Not just once. Many, many different places around the park these same three names were abused and threatened. Why those girls? Who knows? Maybe they didn’t have the right hair cuts or the right accents. Maybe they refused to sleep with someone and he took his revenge with a permanant marker. Whatever the reason, these three girls are being horrifically bullied. They might not even know it yet – they might be happily oblivious to the bile being poured out against them – but they are being bullied.
This kind of graffiti is nothing new – benches in the 80s often boasted mottos like “Michelle Fowler is a total whore” – but there is a new and threatening element to it, thanks to social media. I’m a great fan of the internet and all the opportunities it gives me and my kids that we just wouldn’t have had twenty years ago. But it’s dangerous too. All I needed was these girls’ full names to find their Facebook profiles, Youtube channels and pictures. I’m quite adept at this kind of thing but if I hadn’t been, one piece of graffiti helpfully gave the Instagram and Snapchat handles for one of them.
I’m aware I’m being a hypocrite here. Because of the blog, it’s easy to find pictures of my kids online and I haven’t yet figured out how we handle that transition once they have an opinion on that. But there are some key differences. The first is that I believe no-one has any malicious intent towards my kids right now. I haven’t even pissed off any dangerous cults lately. The second is that yes, strange people can find pictures of my kids but what could they actually do with them? That’s a whole other debate, but fact remains that if any weirdo tried to contact my children via the internet they would have to come through me first.
Which leads me to my actual point (just felt the need to head off any potential hypocrisy accusations first). The girls involved are being bullied – we’ve established that. And the internet allows anyone who wants to join in on this bullying to find them and torment them in a far less public way. In other words, if you hate someone enough to write sexually explicit fiction about them on a slide, you definitely hate them enough to set up an anonymous account and cyber-bully them. That’s my suspicion and sure enough, when I did my own piece of cyber-stalking, I found that a girl’s Youtube channel bedecked with abusive comments from a user who seemed to do little else on Youtube. That’s just the public side – who knows what happens in PMs?
The consequences of this are mortally serious. I’ve been following the Izzy Dix campaign on Facebook, which seeks to close down the networking site ask.fm where users can comment on people’s profiles anonymously. With the need to use their own identity removed, bullies feel empowered to ramp up the abuse to the point where the victim takes their own life. That’s what happened to Izzy Dix, at the age of 14, and it’s becoming a more and more frequent occurrence. When I saw a piece of graffiti saying “E…. X should just kill herself” I felt sick. Because it can happen. A potent combination of teenage angst, hormones and relentless torment suddenly leaves few options. Few ways out.
So – in the words of Reuben – I’ve got something to say. To the bullies first. When I read stories like Izzy’s, I’m always left wondering one thing. How did the bullies feel when they finally pushed their victim over the edge? You’d assume the initial feeling on hearing the news would be guilt, shame or crushing regret but thinking hard about it, I’m pretty sure the first reaction would be fear. An all-consuming, terrifying, selfish fear that someone will somehow find out that YOU did it. Thoughts of jail will flash through your mind, followed by the prospect of a loveless life worked in crappy jobs because everyone knows what you did. It may not happen. Many bullies still manage to come out on top and bully people their entire lives – that’s the best you can hope for, really. But think for a second what that black pit of fear might feel like.
Right now, you’re pretty sure it makes you look cool – maybe even some kind of hacker-type, with your threatening messages and your mysterious profile pictures. But even now, people are starting to be less impressed by you. You might have even persuaded someone to go on a date with you because you abuse the same person that they abuse. That won’t last. The older you get, the more pathetic it seems to get your kicks from tormenting others. A 30-year-old bully doesn’t impress girls. A 30-year-old woman bitching about other women will find herself devoid of any meaningful friendships. That’s quite something to look forward to.
And now to those three girls – or anyone who might be reading this and be in a similar position. It does end, eventually. Honest. When you’re 13 it feels like there is nothing in your future but more of the same but honestly, if I could do just one piece of time travel it would be to go back to 1994 and have a short, sweet chat with that younger version of myself. Because if I’d known then that I only had three years to endure before I met the love of my life, I think it would have been a breeze. School will end. You may never ever have to see these people again. You can block them on Facebook, you can delete accounts. You can live without the internet entirely. You can avoid the playgrounds where they scrawl things about you. You can let their words graze you, not cut you. Because – as discussed above – bullies have nothing but lonely misery to look forward to. They tell you you’re fat – you’re not. They say you have no friends – I’m pretty sure that’s not true and even if it was, would you really want the kind of friends that they have? Nasty, shallow, backstabbing friends? You have talents, you have futures, you have hope. It’s nuts that a seemingly random number generator defines who gets to be in “in-crowd” in school and who doesn’t – it’s not always the best-looking people and it’s certainly not the cleverest. It’s just the people that life has arbitrarily assigned to be “popular”. It’s all as pointless and shallow as it sounds. And it somehow all matters less once you do your GCSEs.
So, that’s my ill thought-out, clumsy opinion. It probably won’t be read by anyone who needs to read it because it’s nothing to do with London or toddlers but if it makes one person feel better about themselves, it’s worth the 1500 words of drivel I’ve spouted. And now to put a call in to the graffiti-removal people….