A Few Personal Remarks on Cyber Cowards
This article first appeared in Chicago’s ‘Irish American News’ for September 2013
Last night (Tuesday 13th August as I write), in a television interview, Lorraine Gallagher spoke movingly of the awful deaths of her two daughters. Mrs. Gallagher of Ballybofey, Co. Donegal was the mother of thirteen-year-old Erin, who took her own life last October after bullying both at school and on the controversial social networking site Ask.fm. Horrifyingly, her fifteen-year-old sister Shannon also committed suicide only six weeks later.
I can’t even begin to comprehend what this family have gone through.
Last night Mrs. Gallagher spoke for the first time about Erin’s suicide note. She said:
“[In the note…]She apologised. She said I’m sorry I have to do this but I’m fed up of the bullying on Ask.fm and she mentioned a name.”
Ask.fm has been mentioned in regard to other teen suicides– the latest being Hannah Smith (14) of Leicestershire, England— and Mrs. Gallagher continued:
“Thousands and thousands of children are getting bullied every day on that site. I want Ask.fm shut down because I don’t want to turn on the TV again and see another kid has killed herself because they have been bullied on Ask.fm”.
Of Erin’s sister Shannon she said: “Shannon was the oldest; she never lived a day of her life without Erin. Everybody thought that because Shannon was tomboyish and outspoken that Erin needed Shannon. That was wrong. It was Shannon who needed Erin.”
After talking painfully about that dreadful Christmas she said: “I want to get justice for Shannon and Erin.
“Even if they can’t shut down Ask.fm they can bring in a wall for the people who are bullying so maybe then there wouldn’t be as much bullying on Ask.fm”.
Now that would break anyone’s heart. But I must confess that in truth I possibly wouldn’t normally have paid a great deal of attention to it. As a human being of course I responded; but as someone with no children in my life there’s obviously a little distance in feeling. Or rather there normally would be; but in the past month I’ve had an unusual—and quite uncomfortable—insight into these poor kids.
Now, in my mid-fifties and hardly what could be described as a shrinking violet I doubt that it would be possible to bully me. That’s not a boast; it’s just that I’m pretty thick-skinned. Over the years, of course, I’ve had my fair share of angry emails and on a couple of occasions even public confrontations; but that’s in the nature of the beast: you can hardly write the kind of things that I often do, stick your email address at the bottom and expect everybody to think that your opinions are right all the time. Quite apart from anything else I enjoy hearing from people with a contrary view. Hell, the way that I look at it is that we should be learning all the time. In fact I think that if you still hold rigid views that you had when you were twenty some decades later then you’re probably not paying attention to what the world is telling you. It’s like that old saying: “If you’re not a Communist by the time that you’re twenty, you don’t have a heart. If you’re STILL one by the time that you’re thirty you don’t have a brain.”
Here’s one example from my own life: even only a few years ago, I would have described myself as an atheist. However, after a few out-of- the-ordinary experiences, I don’t think that I would be quite that dogmatic any more. In fact, truth to tell, I’m a little appalled at my earlier arrogance. I know that I’m never going to be a God-botherer, that’s for sure; but as to whether or not something of us continues after we fall off the twig, well I just don’t know.
So yes, I’ve always enjoyed the correspondence that I’ve received, even when some mails seemed to have been written by someone who was frothing at the mouth and possibly in danger of a fatal seizure at any moment. But importantly, I’ve often learned from it.
Last month, however, one person decided to take abuse to a whole different level altogether. Nor does he live a thousand miles away; instead he lives only walking-distance from my apartment. I had in fact spoken to this guy on a couple of occasions and when he sent on mails I always responded—as indeed I do to anyone who takes the trouble and time to write. To be honest, I thought that his comments were daft. Harmless, but daft. Then, following one particular article (not for the IAN) his mails went completely ape. I’m obviously all for free speech but these went from simply abusing me to abusing someone who was dead and unable to defend himself.
Angry and not a little disturbed, I decided to make my final answer and put a big line under this. I contacted him and politely informed him that there was no point in continuing his keyboard rants and that even if he passed me in the street he was to keep going. For a while that made things worse. The emails arrived two, three and four times a day— which speaks for itself on the obsessive mentality of these guys. And this stuff was so vile that I can’t even give you an example here. Hell, I’d be pressed to get it passed for an HBO show.
It got so bad that I was advised to contact the police but to be honest that will be a last resort—although I can’t really rule it out. I just feel they have enough to bother them without this nonsense from a grown man. Still, everything is kept in a folder now along with my own early replies.
I since found out that he has a history of this and in fact the previous unfortunate recipient of his attentions (not a journalist) did report him. He’s now been quiet for a week but something tells me that I haven’t heard the last of this.
I hadn’t intended to write about it. But the interview with Mrs. Gallagher changed my mind. For the first time I got a glimpse—and it is only the very quickest of glimpses—of how any young persons going through this must feel. If it can make someone like me start to open his mail with a heavy feeling in the stomach I can only imagine what it’s like for a kid.
I have no idea what the answer is. Ironically I seldom use social networking at all and only give out my address because I normally like feedback, for good or bad. So it might be easy to say well, why the hell are these kids using it if they’re going to be upset? But 54 doesn’t think like 14. They absolutely love their networking and that’s not going to stop any time soon. Ask.fm does seem to be rather cavalier in its stand, though. There has to come a time when human decency takes precedence over just making money.