You and I have had a very healthy and happy relationship for years. You entertain me. You make my life easier and more interesting. You are always there when I need you; reliable, accessible and reassuring. You are a wise friend and an expert that I look up to when I need advice. Through you I have found many friends and discovered some wonderful and inspiring ideas to enrich my life. You give me a creative outlet and gave me a new lease of life when I needed it most.
I want too for my children to enjoy the wonderful resource that is the online world. I want them to be free to play, chat, read, watch videos and run through the myriad paths of knowledge and discovery with joyful abandon. But sadly I know there is danger lurking out there. These dangers are my biggest fear.
Because, dear internet, you have a dark side. A side that terrifies me. And when it reared its ugly head I felt powerless and horrified by its emergence as it run amok in our life.
You see I have a daughter. A beautiful, intelligent, talented, amazing daughter. But a daughter who has become a little bit broken because of you. A daughter who has suffered at your hands, or moreover at the hands of those who use you to to abuse, bully and destroy others.
A daughter whose vulnerability was exploited through the use of cruel words, insults and instructions on how she should kill herself, which wormed their way into her psyche. Messages sent by weak, cowardly people intent to cause maximum pain and suffering. With the ease of anonymity and the ability to do and say things that they would never have the courage to say face to face, they were able to chip away at my daughter's confidence with no thought of the consequences. Begging them to stop only served to fuel their venom, as they descended like a pack of hyenas waiting for the kill. Exploiting weakness and breaking down defences with words meant to hurt. Cruel, cutting words typed anonymously on a keyboard by pathetic perpetrators who hid behind an anonymous facade to attack her for whatever sick and twisted reason it was that motivated them.
Thankfully she survived. She weathered the storm and came through the other side. She had support. She found the courage. It stopped. We moved on and put this episode behind us. But you never forget. She didn't come out unscathed. She was hurt. Violated by their hatefulness. The scars on her wrists will be a constant reminder to her. And to me.
So dear internet, although I love you, I wish you had the power to prevent these anonymous bullies from having the unencumbered freedom to hurt others because they are somehow different to them or are a threat to their own insecurities. Virtual bullying. Cyber bullying. It's no less dangerous, no less damaging than any other form of mental abuse. Just ask the families with children who didn't come through the other side. Those who didn't have the support to get through it. Just ask those that mourn teen suicide victims. Those kids that were psychologically beaten down and forced into doing the unthinkable as their only way of escape.
We can try to equip our children with the emotional tools to deal with this kind of violation. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, it manages to worm its way into a child's mind, paralysing them with shame and degradation. Hitting a nerve that makes them powerless to stop it. With the wisdom of age, we know that victims could easily disconnect their wi-fi, switch off their phones and turn their back on the source of their pain. But many vulnerable youngsters have their own deep inner insecurities stoked and can't simply walk away. The hate directed towards them reflects the self-loathing that grows from the constant belittling and berating they suffer online. They cannot separate the two. It's a form of self-harm to suffer at the bullies' hands. It's a vicious circle. A cycle with potentially fatal consequences.
This dark side is my biggest internet fear. I fear it because I have seen it. The helplessness. The relentlessness. The violation. I fear it because it just too easy for the trolls and the bullies to execute their cowardly attacks from their virtual hideaways, ruining lives and invading the personal space of their vulnerable victims without a second thought. Tearing down confidence, shattering trust and trampling over the remaining fragile sense of self, from the comfort of their own bedrooms armed with only a keyboard and a frightening lack of empathy or humanity.
Anyone, anywhere can become a victim. The next prey. And it can escalate fast. And it is utterly merciless. I may fear it, but it has made me more vigilant. Stronger. More aware. Ready to react if ever again I recognise the signs. I just hope and pray that I never, ever have to see it again.
“This post is my entry into the Check and Secure challenge. For more advice on family safety online, see Mums on Security.”