Last Saturday, the 24th of November, Lara Burns was found dead in the stables next to her home in Co. Kildare. At only twelve years of age Lara had seemingly decided she could not go on any longer and taken her own life. The youth who was just three months into her first year at Maynooth Post Primary School is survived by her devastated family, mother Helene, father Robert, stepfather Noel and brother, Brendan.
Tragically, Lara is the third young girl to take her own life in recent months. Her death follows that of Erin Gallagher (13) from Co. Donegal and Ciara Pugsley (15) from Co. Leitrim who took her own life in September. As we all know and understand suicide is a complex issue which not only results from depression but a series of socio-cultural factors. However, in the case of these three girls cyber-bullying has been considered a primary factor in their horrifically premature deaths.
Claims that Lara Burns had been the victim of bullying first came to light after her brother Brendan who wished to pay tribute to his sister set up a special Facebook page in her memory. While he simply but poignantly wrote “RIP sis” many other contributors to the site made reference to the bullying Lara should never have had to endure.
Yesterday, after speaking with a source close to the Burns family, The Daily Star reported that Lara had in fact battled self harm issues in the period before her death. Apparently the youth had been working closely with and receiving emotional support from Pieta House, a group which provides help for those suffering from suicidal thoughts. In the wake of their daughter’s death the Burns family actually requested that in lieu of flowers at the funeral mourners donate to this particular group.
Having discovered that Lara was self harming for quite some time many are worried that the girl suffered at the hands of bullies for much longer than was originally thought. Naturally, due to the seriousness of this case and the growing epidemic that is cyber-bullying Gardai will be investigating further.
It is a little known fact that more people die as a result of suicide each year in Ireland than in road traffic accidents. While older people, especially men, are typically thought of as the most vulnerable group this is beginning to change and we are seeing suicide affecting increasing numbers of Irish people across the lifespan. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) youth suicide is growing at the fastest rate. In fact suicide is now considered one of the three leading causes of death amongst those aged 15-44 (male and female). Disturbingly, the WHO also found that youth suicide rates in Ireland are the fifth highest in the European Union whilst a separate report published by the Irish Medical Journal has revealed that there has been a 16 percent increase in a 20 year period in the rate of suicide in Irish teens under the age of 17.
Thanks in part to ever changing hormone levels the teenage years are widely understood to be some of the most turbulent and vulnerable of an individuals entire life. Unfortunately today’s teenagers are facing greater challenges and dealing with more pressure than ever before. Simply inhabiting this world requires a person to deal with pressures resulting from alcohol, drugs, sexuality, sexualisation, body image etc. Of course technology despite all of its wonderful aspects also has a part to play. Today, your average teenager has a cell phone, a Facebook account, and probably numerous others (Bebo, Twitter or ask.fm anyone?) Obviously I am not suggesting we simply cut off these lines of communication but it is of the utmost importance that we recognise the dangers that come alongside them. There is no denying that there has been an influx of social media sites in recent years and I like so many others believe this is one of the major problems affecting teenagers today.
Today, if you don’t have a Facebook account you’re considered weird and lets face it no teenager wants to be considered strange. Not having a link such as this to their friends can make a fourteen year old feel like a social outcast. However having a social networking account (accounts in many cases) provides a direct channel to that individual meaning that if they are in fact being bullied they are contactable outside of school hours, at night time at the weekend, always.
The Problem With Anonymity
Typically, people have the confidence to say things they otherwise would not – both good and bad things – when a screen separates them from the individual they wish to speak to. Ian Power, communications manager of SpunOut, a youth organisation which aims to put an end to cyber-bullying, believes that this is how and why cyber-bullying so often spirals out of control. Power believes that what many individuals say online is more often than not something they would never say in “real life” In his opinion the “rise in the past year in the number of websites that allow anonymity” only exacerbates the issue. With the privilege of anonymity tormentors often feel that they can hurl even more outrageous insults and comments at their victims. Insults such as “I’m sorry to hear you tried to kill yourself. Next time finish it” This comment was aimed at a young victim of bullying here in Ireland. One website that grants users total anonymity is Ask.fm. This controversial site has found itself at the centre of both Ciara Pugsley and Erin Gallagher’s deaths.
Ciara Pugsley, who attended St Clare’s Comprehensive School in Manorhamilton Co. Leitrim, took her own life just last September after becoming the target of a vicious hate campaign launched against her online. The fifteen year old’s tormentors primarily used Ask.fm to abuse her. Among the comments the teenager received were ones telling her she was fat, ugly, retarded and that she lacked all self respect. Another individual, perhaps the same individual, then made reference to her depression questioning whether or not she was just pretending to be in pain in order to get attention. Heartbreakingly, the last message to appear from Ciara on her account was a response to the question “whats been up with you?” to which the teenager replied “u’ll see soon.” Shockingly vitriolic comments concerning Ciara were even posted online following her tragic death.
Six weeks later, in a strikingly similar case, thirteen year old Erin Gallagher from Ballybofey, Co. Donegal was found dead after informing her online contacts – friends and tormentors alike – that she was considering killing herself following a bout of abuse suffered on Ask.fm. Again the comments aimed at Erin were much the same as those aimed at Ciara. The thirteen year old was dubbed a “fat, ugly tramp” by tormentors who once again preferred to remain anonymous. Multiple references were also made to the fact that Erin had been physically assaulted by some of the same girls. In a comment posted on Friday, the day before the thirteen year old died, Erin responded to bullies who were poking fun at the fact that she had been badly beaten by another girl and perhaps even had some of her hair pulled out during the attack
“Do u think ur funny bullying me over ask.fm? Yeah u prob think it was funny when I f**kin put a rope round my neck cause of yous, yous are that sad! Leave it now u had ur f**kin fun get over it! My hair wasn’t all over the ground trust me plus stop going round saying I got a bald patch I had or have no bald patch”.
Calls To Ban Controversial Site Ask.fm
In her Facebook tribute Erin’s older sister Shannon Gallagher wrote “I love you darling. It’s so hard to say you’re gone. Everyones heartbroken. I couldn’t have asked for a better sister. You were a stunning girl. No one deserved what you went through. I’m sorry that I couldn’t prevent it. Love you with all my heart” which actually spurred an outpouring of grief from family, friends and sympathisers across the nation and those who wished to call for an end to the now supremely controversial site Ask.fm.
Calling for an end to the site was Peter Sweeney who wrote:
“Erin is a 2nd year student who went to a local school here in Ballybofey who tragically due to bullying ended her own life. An absolute waste of a young life who had so much ahead of her. She was on a website called ask.fm where a lot of the bullying took place, and I call for it to be banned. Rest in peace Erin.”
Shockingly another user, Laura O Sullivan, who echoed Sweeney’s sentiments admitted “My own sister had the same trouble with that ask.fm, had a suicide letter written also, my mum found it thank god.”
Founder Of Ask.fm Defends His Site
Responding to the negative press Ask.fm has received following the death of these girls the sites founder Mark Terebin told RTE that he sympathised with the families of the victims adding “We do understand the gravity of the situation… of course there is a problem with cyber bullying in social media, but as far as we can see, we only have this situation in Ireland and the UK… It seems like children are more cruel in these countries.” Having been further pressed by the media to comment on the situation at hand Terebin then issued another statement saying “Mass media is knocking on the wrong door. It is necessary to go deeper and to find a root of a problem. It’s not about the site, the problem is about education, about moral values that have been devalued lately. Don’t blame a tool but try to make changes… start with yourself. Be more polite, more kind, more tolerant of others.” He then went on to blame the medias coverage of these suicides for further deaths amongst teenagers “Suicide is not something to encourage via mass media. The more you promote suicide, the more it happens.”
It’s true, Ask.fm was quite innocently set up as a social networking tool that would allow members to ask questions and seek advice on various topics. It was never intended to be misused and abused the way it has been by certain members of the public. I’m sure cyber-bullying was never something website developers intended to encourage. There is also truth in what Terebin has said: we should be more tolerant of and nicer to others. However Ask.fm’s terms of service clearly states: “You will not, directly or indirectly, transmit any obscene, offensive, threatening, harassing, libellous, hate-oriented, harmful, defamatory, racist, illegal or otherwise objectionable material or content.”
Mr Terebin has gone to great lengths recently to point out that his site is just like Facebook or Twitter – a mere social networking tool – perhaps then it is time that he admit that he does in fact have a responsibility to the many users of his website. No, I do not believe that shutting down Ask.fm will eliminate cyber-bullying or teen suicide but Mr Terebin simply cannot continue to deny all culpability. The fact remains that each and every websites content must be monitored and managed and that is precisely why the founder of this particular site has tried to transfer the onus of responsibility to the shoulders of so many others. Certainly I do not wish to imply that the deaths of these girls are his fault but it seems to me that Mr Terebin should refrain from implying that the “cruel” children of Ireland and those who work in the media are to blame. In my opinion these are two incredibly naive statements. One simply cannot tar all the teenagers of Ireland with the same brush and an educated person would never suggest shutting up when it comes to suicide or depression for that matter. For years we have struggled to overcome the taboo status of suicide here in Ireland something we are only now succeeding in. It has long been acknowledged that communication is the key to battling both depression and suicide, given the statistics we saw earlier this is not the time to revert to silence and secrecy.
Anti Bullying Campaigners
In the wake of Lara Burns recent suicide Mr Jonathan Pugsley, father of Ciara , has come forward to express his sympathy for the family saying “It is devastating to learn that another young girl has taken her own life. My heart goes out to the Burns family because I know what they are going through” He also appealed, once again, to the politicians of Ireland to take “urgent action” to prevent more deaths amongst our young people. “I’ve tried to research all of this and it seems to me that the politicians in this country have spent the past 10-12 years talking about bullying but have done nothing about it.” Mr Pugsley said adding “The time for talking is over. We need urgent action now and urgent policies now to prevent further deaths.” Thanks to impassioned and dedicated campaigners such as Mr Pugsley and the tireless work of organisation’s like The National Anti Bullying Coalition (NABC) it seems our leaders will set in motion the changes this country so badly needs.
Following the success of the Tools for Teachers programme developed by teachers Sean Fallon and Mary Kent which provides free expert training in the recognition and elimination of bullying in schools across Ireland the NABC has urged Education Minister Ruairi Quinn to develop and implement an anti bullying system within Irish schools that is at least as effective as that devised by Fallon and Kent. “So please, Minister Quinn, use the authority you already have under the Education Act to initiate the end of this misery for students and their families now. For some of our teenagers, there is no time to lose, and next year may be too late” said a spokesperson for NABC recently. Fortunately, it is now expected that the minister will present an action plan expertly devised by members of The National Behavioural Support Service, the HSE and National Educational Psychologists to the NABC in the coming days.
Meanwhile, also petitioning for change is Minister for Justice Alan Shatter who wants to examine in further detail the prospect of prosecuting cyber-bullies. Addressing members of the Dail Shatter explained that bullying was a form of harassment and as such fell within the provisions of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997. Whilst he acknowledged the difficulty in prosecuting bullies and the need to remain both practical and realistic he also said that he hoped to learn from countries such as Scotland and Australia both of which treat the matter extremely seriously.
At this point anything that would contribute to the recognition that bullying is not acceptable within schools, the workplace or any other environment is warmly welcomed by the people of Ireland. Until then it is important to remember these guidelines issued by SpunOut.ie for combating cyber bullying:
- Ignore the bully – Do not respond online.
- Keep some evidence of the bullying. Take a screenshot of the comments being posted to sites and retain all text messages.
- Confide in someone you trust such as a friend, family member or teacher.
- The most important thing of all is to speak up. Do not suffer in silence.
Naturally bullying contributes to feelings of depression so I also spoke to Sandra Hogan of AWARE to hear what advice she had to offer those suffering from depression. This is what she had to say:
“Anyone who might be affected by depression or concerned about a loved one can access information and support which is available. Our website www.aware.ie contains lots of helpful information about the condition and about our support services. Once you know what you are dealing with, it is that little bit easier to find coping techniques and minimise the impact it has on your life. There are some helpful resources aimed at young people such as spunout.ie, jigsaw and headstrong. Getting professional advice from a GP or other appropriately qualified health professional is important too.”
Please, whatever you do just remember there is truth in the old idiom “A problem shared is a problem halved” and speak out!
By Kerri Mitchell
For those coping with or affected by depression/suicide
Childline: 1800 666656 or text list to 50101
Parentline: 1890 927277
Teen Ireland: 1800 833634
Console: 24/7 helpline 1800 201890
3Ts 24/7 helpline: 1800 247100 or text “help” to 51444
HSE Suicide Prevention Helpline: 1800 742745
AWARE: 1890 303 302
Pieta House: 01 601 0000 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
Cyberbullying advice websites
Expert advice at webwise.ie
Academic based research at cybertraining-project.org