exit routes: hollyoaks does cyber bullying;
Trigger warnings for bullying, suicide.
It’s over a month now since the team behind Hollyoaks invited me along to the CCA, where they were unveiling an innovative new storyline to local bloggers. The relevant storyline is set to come to an explosive conclusion very shortly and I had hoped to get this post up sooner, but a lack of internet at home has severely curtailed the time in which I have to blog at any length.
The show had been slowly building towards exploring a bullying storyline involving one of its teenage characters, Esther, before a project created by newcomer Dylan Shaw saw underhand taunts turn into something much more sinister. DocYou, a site created by Dylan to help him produce a ‘Life in a Day’ style video documentary about his classmates in Hollyoaks’ sixth form college, is the first example of a social network created specifically for a TV show and, as befits the technology, has its own home away from the small screen. Viewers, used to watching events unfold during their nightly fix of the show, have also been able to see a cyber bullying campaign against Esther happen in real time on the dedicated DocYou site.
While I don’t watch the show (I have a feeling it’s on right now, as I’m blogging this) the character of Dylan Shaw comes across as selfish and naive. Following a bus crash that leaves three students dead – one of whom, Maddie, was by all accounts the school’s ‘Queen Bee’ and led much of the bullying against Esther – the anonymous comments that have plagued the public site since its inception take a turn for the worse. There are allegations against the dead, malicious ‘spoof’ videos starring Esther posted under Maddie’s name and rumours of worse to come. When Esther begs Dylan to shut the site down, he shouts “freedom of speech” like a mantra.
Mikey Riddington-Smith, who plays Dylan, explains the character and DocYou
Technology has opened up opportunities for keeping in touch to kids today that just weren’t available to me growing up, but that hasn’t always been a good thing. That it’s difficult to write this without Grumpy Old Woman-style references to the ‘youth of today’ is as good an indication as any of how fast things have changed. As a 30-year-old woman who is a journalist and blogger, I use social media as both a communication and an information-sharing tool. If I dread logging in, it’s only because the always-on nature of those channels can lead to an information overload. All the time, more and more stories emerge of kids who end up seriously damaged, even killing themselves, because the bullying online became too unbearable to live with. As a formerly bullied kid myself I weep for Megan Meier, who hung herself three weeks before her 14th birthday after getting hate mail from the mother of a former friend who had pretended to be a boy of Megan’s own age to win her trust; and for Tyler Clementi, who hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge when he discovered that his roommate had secretly filmed him with a partner and streamed the footage on the internet.
What I find most horrific about these incidents is that these kids were harmed by the medium that, to only exaggerate a little, might have just saved me. Getting teased at school for my nerdish looks, my childish pastimes and my bookish manner made my life a misery. Until things began to slowly turn around from about the age of 15 I had very few friends, cried myself to sleep most nights and became painfully shy, expecting mocking laughter and whispers any time some of my more quirky personality traits appeared on the surface. I had chewing gum thrown at me – it had to be cut out, along with a chunk of my hair, by my mother – and a hole burned in the hood of a new jacket by a deliberately-thrown cigarette butt. It may have been years later that I ended up on anti-depressants but I have no doubt in my mind that the bullying was a significant factor in the ongoing periods of self-doubt, chronic anxiety, sleeplessness and severe depression from about my mid-teens that led to my eventual diagnosis.
Whatever may have happened at school during the day, however, the evenings were spent with my books, my writing and the support of a loving family. And when I got online – and quickly picked up blogging – in the late 1990s, I discovered a community where my quirks were encouraged and celebrated and my self-belief restored. Many of those connections became the people I call my best friends today: both locally (thx, LiveJournal!) and not so. When my phone lights up with a Facebook notification, Twitter mention or Instagram comment, in the vast majority of cases it’s going to be something that makes me smile. Imagine, when you went home at night, those pokes and BBMs were threats or anonymous comments? Take them off your Facebook and switch your phone off, you say? Evidently, you’ve never been fifteen.
A good few years ago, I was walking up the High Street of my home town with the Neil-bear on our way to the supermarket where we both worked. I must have been 18, 19 at the time; already long out of school and part of the way through my Law degree. Some anonymous 10-year-old I’d never seen in my life was sitting on the steps by one of the local pubs, and as we passed it yelled I want to be a pony. I had naively uttered those words a good decade before, in the dining hall of the school where I’d recently moved and was yet to make any friends. Thinking about it, those words were when the bullying began. I suppose, at the age of seven, one should already be censoring one’s responses and answering “teacher” or “accountant”. I didn’t know this child, and I have no idea how it knew of this particular incident. I was shaken, so much so that it was all I could do to stop Neil turning round and sorting the matter out in the traditional West of Scotland way (he recently became a third dan black belt at karate, so it would hardly have been a fair fight).
That was the day that I decided that, when I grew up, I wouldn’t live in my home town. I’ve been away for over six years now, and I still remember the incident vividly.
I can’t imagine how much worse my life could have been.