Andrew Vine: Real life pain of online tirade of hate by ‘trolls’

IT WAS the sound of sobbing that drew my friend to his teenage daughter’s bedroom door. Inside, she was inconsolable. Red-eyed, distraught, she’d plainly been crying since going up to her room ostensibly to do homework a couple of hours before.

He and his wife had noticed that she hadn’t been herself over the previous few weeks. She’d been quiet, preoccupied, even slightly withdrawn. All attempts to get to the bottom of what was troubling her had failed.

They’d been through the teenage years once already with their elder daughter, so knew perfectly well that it was not unusual for a 14-year-old girl to be moody. They decided the best approach was softly-softly, keeping a close eye on her and waiting for the right opportunity to find out what was on her mind. But they hadn’t expected this. Through the tears, it all came tumbling out. And what she said shocked them to the core.

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She was the victim of internet trolls, who had been tormenting and abusing her via a social networking site for weeks. The story was there on her mobile phone, a stream of vile and cruel insults that had reached its climax that evening with a wish that she was dead.

It had been merciless. Over and over again, they had called her “ugly bitch”. No aspect of her appearance was off limits. Her hair, clothes, shoes, even the bag she carried to school were derided and jeered at.

Her self-confidence and self-esteem were being shredded by these unremitting attacks. The victimisation had left her isolated, helpless, even ashamed, to the extent of feeling unable to tell her parents what was happening.

Almost as if the trolls sensed that the more isolated she became, the more their attacks would wound, their malice increased. With every passing week, the pack circled more menacingly until its victim felt hemmed in with nowhere to turn for help.

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What made it even worse was that the ringleader of the group of girls who had been tormenting her lived nearby. The children had grown up together, and both sets of parents were on friendly terms. When the two girls were at primary school, their mothers had often walked home together after leaving them at the gates.

This only deepened my friend’s sense of disbelief. How could this be happening here, in an affluent Yorkshire suburb, to two decent families and a group of children doing well at a successful state school?

There was little sleep for anyone in the house that night, not least because of what the following day held. My friend and his wife decided to divide up what had to be done. He would go to school to talk to the headteacher, and she would go to see the ringleader’s mother.

Hers was the harder task. Over coffee, the other mother went from outrage to incredulity to bewilderment before, in the face of the indisputable story told by the messages on the phone, tears came.

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As the two mothers hugged, both knew that their families’ relationship could never be the same again. And as the victim’s mother took her leave, she left behind a woman wondering how well she really knew her daughter if she was capable of plumbing such depths of cruelty. It had all begun as a result of some trivial spat which would usually have resulted in a few days of not speaking to one another until it all blew over. But somehow, it had got out of hand and developed into something much darker.

How many other families out there have been plunged into turmoil by trolling? Certainly there are nine whose lives have been blown apart, because that is the number of young people whose suicides last year were linked to cyberbullying.

Some figures have suggested that as many as seven out of 10 young people using social networking sites have been subjected to bullying.

Trolling is an insidious and especially hurtful form of psychological warfare because it eats into its victims’ souls, sowing self-doubt and despair. And when it is directed at children growing through the fragile and complicated emotions of the teenage years, it can be especially harmful.

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Even those grown to adulthood are not immune from its effects, as shown by the public breakdown of the Olympic gold medal-winning swimmer Rebecca Adlington, who was subjected to disgraceful abuse about her looks via social media.

The consequences for my friend’s daughter and her tormentors are still playing themselves out. The only certain thing is that there will be no quick fix. She is only gradually returning to her old happy and outgoing self, and there is a question over whether the ringleader of her abusers can return to the same school.

How twisted it is that a form of communication intended to bring people together and foster friendships can be perverted into a means of torture. And how sad that the word “troll” should have become a hateful part of so many children’s lives.