Adults, if you want teenagers to be civil online, first fix your own behaviour
ONE DAY last month, 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley logged on to the Ask.fmsite.
The site allows users to ask and reply to questions from other users, either anonymously or through their Facebook or Twitter accounts. “If you could play any musical instrument, what would it be?” someone asked her.
“Guitar, i always wanna be able to play it, maybe someday :L :),” she replied.
Tragically, that opportunity never came. A week ago, she was found dead in a wooded area near her home in Killargue, Co Leitrim.
At her funeral mass last weekend, a family friend spoke about how the girl, described by her school as “a valued and popular member of our community and a talented sportsperson”, had been “driven” to suicide by “internet bullying”.
Eugene O’Brien spoke about how Ciara had done a lifesaving course and said that she “valued life and wanted to be a saver of lives”.
“Ciara did not want to die. She enjoyed living and had so much more living to do. She was driven to it. I appeal to those involved in this dreadful activity to see the devastating consequences of their malicious comments here today,” he said.
When someone, especially a child, ends their life by suicide, those of us on the outside are eager for answers. The media, in particular, clutches at narratives that can sometimes belie the complexity of human sadness, or the enormity of a family’s loss.
I don’t want to do that. Even after the Garda investigation has concluded and the coroner’s report is published, we will never fully understand why Ciara Pugsley, who had so much to live for, died.
But this much is true: whatever else was going on in her life, she had been the victim of particularly cruel anonymous online commentary in the two months before her death. On the same day that she talked about her wish to learn the guitar, for instance, she was subjected to a series of vitriolic remarks that accused her, among other things, of being “a fake”, “ugly”, a “slut”, and “a sad dramatic wee child”.
“Theres people actually suffering and you just dont understand that everyone knows your a fake and that you do it for attention ! so please get a life you sad sad pathetic little girl !” one of the few printable comments read.
It’s tempting, as some parents in Leitrim did last week, to suggest banning phones as a response to this, or even curtailing teenagers’ use of the internet, but it’s hardly practicable. It’s not enough to wish that Facebook had never happened, or to stop children using Ask.fm.
Instead, children and teenagers need to be taught how to interact online, just as we teach them, when they first learn to communicate, how to behave with one another socially.