This update is from one of our parent supporters–sharing an invaluable experience about online bullying.
I recently had an experience that shook me more than I could have imagined. To understand the situation, here’s a quick background update.
I live in a community surrounded by supportive, compassionate and loving friends and family. My worldview is that “We live in a safe place that is mostly made up of safe people.” If you make a mistake, people will be understanding when you explain yourself. If you lose something, there’s a very good chance you will get it back. These are the same beliefs I am fostering in my children.
However, this week, all that was challenged. My husband works abroad. He’s away 4 days a week on average, so I raise our 3 kids in his absence. It’s pretty hectic as the youngest is only 2 years old and one has chronic health needs. One of the perks of his work situation though is that we get free air points and priority status with an airline. That said, it is rare that I am able to personally take advantage of this. So when my husband gave me return flights using his business class upgrades for my birthday, I was ecstatic, to say the least. I was off for a girl’s weekend. We booked the tickets and then rang to apply the upgrades. That’s the standard process. However, on this occasion, it turned out that the upgrades could not be applied because the flight was economy only, which I had no way of knowing at the time of booking. There was no business class to upgrade to. I was bitterly disappointed as I had been looking forward to a treat for my birthday.
With some residual hope left, I decided to write on the airlines’ Facebook wall. I explained the situation in a light-hearted, witty manner. I didn’t go for a “woe is me” tone or an angry “you guys are the worst.” I just told them my story in a way that would allow the reader to put themselves into my shoes and have empathy. I thought I had a good shot of turning their decision around.
Public comments from strangers
What happened next, I naively could not have predicted. I started getting public comments from strangers. They were downright nasty, cruel and very personal. People said I sounded like an entitled [expletive]. That my husband works abroad to escape me. Some people “liked” these comments, while others replied with clapping GIFs and scenes of 2-year-old tantrums. Some people said I was “a piece of work” and a “princess”.
I was quite honestly devastated. I cried, and more than once. I didn’t want to read these things but a couple of times I found myself going back into the page to see if there were more. This happened the same day I learned that the funding for my daughters “wonder drug” had been pulled, so I was already in a bad place. I didn’t sleep that night. The comments kept circling around in my head and I kept coming up with imaginary responses and rebuttals. They weren’t helping. I was actually doubting myself, wondering if I had the characteristics that these strangers accused me of. Are adults not allowed to express disappointment? Does it make me a bad person to look forward to a special treat?
Shaking it off
By 5 am I realised I needed to find a way to shake this off. I needed a plan to get out of this bad funk. I went through my options and decided to turn off all notifications for the post. I considered other options, but I discarded them based on the amount of extra emotional energy they may entail. Then I sat there, reflecting on what a toll this had taken on me in just 24 hours. I wondered how famous people could put up with this torment daily. I also was shaken by how easily I, as a strong, well educated, emotionally sound person could be affected so badly.
How would it be for a teenager on the receiving end of this sort of abuse? That’s when I realised the only good that could come from this would be to talk to my 9-year-old about it. I had learned a valuable lesson and it was certainly one I could share with her in an effort to give her some tools, should this ever happen to her in the future.
So when she climbed into bed with me for a cuddle at 6 am I said to her, “You know how you have to sign a behaviour responsibility form each year saying that you will use the internet respectfully at school? What does that mean?” She launched into how you aren’t allowed to bully people by telling them you are going to hurt them. She went on to describe how bullying is a relentless attack on a person. She’s right, but that is only one form.
Behind every computer screen is a real human with feelings and a story
Bullying and its effects can be so much subtler than that, as I have learned. It can be a single comment. So, I told her what had happened and I invited her to look at the comments people had made about me and our family. I cried as she read them. She cried too and hugged me. I said to her “If those people had been in a customer service queue with me and overheard my story, would they have come up to the counter and said those same things to me and the airline staff?” The truth is, they would never be brazen enough to respond.
There was no greater way to explain that the way we conduct ourselves online should be no different to the way we treat others in real life, because behind every computer screen is a real human, with feelings and a story we know nothing about. She gets it now, in a far more connected way than the textbook explanation.
- Everyone, young and old, rich or poor, has the potential to be hurt by cruel words. No one is immune and it’s normal to feel hurt in this situation. It doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human.
- Don’t think you know someone by a brief description they give of themselves online.
- We all, as organisations and individuals, have a responsibility to keep the online community safe. I had asked the airline what their policies were around censoring inappropriate comments on their page. Initially, they gave me a ‘fob-off’ answer about it being regulated by Facebook. However, I was delighted to tell my daughter that the following day they deleted all the bad comments, highlighting to her the importance of this point and illustrating that it’s in the interests of well-regarded companies to care and to help monitor responses on their pages.
- We all have moments of vulnerability and it’s important to consider how you can care for yourself in those moments. I talked to my daughter about the options I had to move past this, which ones I chose, and why.
In a powerfully tangible way, my daughter has now seen resilience in action, gained empathetic insight into how to handle bullying online, and knows why every word matters. Handled well, online ‘disasters’ can be turned into actions that make the internet safer for us all.
Originally published for Safer Internet Day in 2019–timeless with its message.