I have seen my classmates become more and more absorbed by social media throughout our teen years, starting from a few friends having social media to everyone in class having it. For teenagers, including me, it’s no longer possible to escape the online world. There is constant peer pressure to be on social media, and if you’re not, you feel like you’re missing out. It’s the main way that teenagers connect with each other.
It’s this built-up reliance on social media that has now made people my age far more vulnerable to the effects of cyberbullying.
Mia Janin, a 14-year-old schoolgirl, took her own life in 2021 after being bullied, both at school and online. [The coroner ruled last week that there was no evidence that any images or videos of Mia had been shared on a particular group chat, except for one of Mia’s Tik Tok videos.]
To many people hearing about Mia’s death, she was a stranger, but she wasn’t to me. As I remember her, she was lively, outgoing and warm. She was clever and confident. She was funny and exciting. She was a very supportive friend to me at primary school. She had so much ahead of her.
I was completely shocked when I heard that she had died. Mia and I lost touch after she left our primary school and moved to secondary school, but the happy memories we shared together stayed with me. Every lunchtime, we would play “it” in the school playground with our group of friends and we would climb to the top of the climbing frame and sit at the top, chatting about anything and everything. For my eighth birthday party, we made a movie of Matilda, and she acted very dramatically as Mrs Wormwood. Looking back, I am struck by how talented Mia was at acting.
Cyberbullying can be devastating. Its use is both hidden and exposed. It’s hidden because the perpetrators of bullying can hide from sight and sometimes remain anonymous. It’s exposed because nothing can ever be erased from social media. It stays online forever, and everyone can see the comments people write online and the content that bullies post. This dual nature means it is so very difficult to deal with.
Receiving malicious messages can make you feel like you are not worth anything. You feel too ashamed to tell anyone that you are being bullied. Bullying is still largely an unspoken subject. My classmates at school don’t often talk about cyberbullying; it’s almost a taboo. It feels as if admitting that you have been bullied is a sign of your own weakness. You wonder what your friends would say if you explained to them that you were being bullied. It’s so isolating to be the victim of relentless bullying, to know that, behind your back, people are gossiping about you.
I find it concerning that, despite cyberbullying being on the rise and affecting an increasing number of teens, many headteachers continue to be more focused on combatting physical bullying. In fact, physical bullying has been found to cause less mental distress than cyberbullying. I believe more efforts have been made directed at physical bullying because it is more obvious than cyberbullying in schools. The fact that it happens in-person and on the school grounds may explain why schools feel more compelled to act on it than when students are targeted online.
But I have seen cyberbullying cause too much hurt for it to be overlooked any longer. Further action needs to be taken to prevent cyberbullying and also to give the message to victims of cyberbullying that they are not alone and can seek help. Social media companies need to do more to protect users from online bullying. Parents need to be alert to the dangers their children may face online. Schools need to place as much emphasis on cyberbullying as they do on physical bullying and take responsibility for it.
Gavriella Epstein-Lightman is a sixth-former