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‘My 12-year-old son told me people were threatening him on Snapchat and calling him a racist’

‘The online abuse went on and it went on and it went on,’ Aisling says about her son Kieran’s experience. ‘I actually feel sick even recalling it’

Until Aisling’s son Kieran ran to her ashen faced and distressed, with his mobile phone in his hand, she had no idea her 12-year-old was using a social-media app against the rules.

“He was completely traumatised. He told me he had been on Snapchat and people were threatening him and calling him a racist,” says Aisling, who asks that both their names be changed to protect her son’s privacy. Kieran showed her the unfolding exchanges, which she had the presence of mind to screenshot as she tried to find out what on earth was going on.

She and his father thought they had outlined sufficient guidelines and conditions when giving him his first smartphone at the end of sixth class in preparation for going into secondary school. But at least having to admit he had gone against them didn’t stop Kieran telling Aisling about the horrible situation he found himself in.

The online abuse went on and it went on and it went on. I actually feel sick even recalling it

—  Aisling

It transpired that during weeks of conversing with various friends on the app, he had also joined a group formed by a collection of children from different primary schools who were all due to start at the same co-educational secondary school in Cork. One child in the group started to be targeted by two others for being ginger-haired, up to the point where they were telling him to “GKY”, online speak for “go kill yourself”.


Kieran stepped in to defend this child but, says Aisling, “unfortunately, in his own fear but also anger and immaturity”, her son made an unacceptable comment, referencing the colour of the girl’s Snapchat bitmoji, ie cartoon avatar. He immediately became a target. “Other 12 year olds proceeded to tell my 12 year old what they were going to do to him in retribution.”

Very graphic threats of physical and sexual violence were made against him, saying they would video these acts too. Vile comments were also made about a couple of children seen as Kieran’s closest friends. “It went on and it went on and it went on. I actually feel sick even recalling it,” says Aisling.

Using Kieran’s phone, she stepped into the chat, introducing herself and asking the group to stop their unacceptable behaviour. She warned them she would be contacting the secondary school. Everybody backed off except the two ringleaders, who started a tirade against her for raising a “racist”.

Aisling contacted the Garda, who said such complaints were very common and there was little they could do. If she was able to identify the children involved, they would visit their homes.

Then she got on to the school. Despite the fact that none of these children had yet started there, they took it seriously and did all the right things, as far as she could see.

“They were amazing, calm and reassuring.” From the screen shots, the school was able to identify one of the ringleaders and contacted his parents. “Interestingly this boy, in person and in his previous behaviour, is so removed from his online persona,” she says. “My own unconscious bias was that this was going to be some little gurrier,” she admits. “He’s not; he could have been my son. His parents were as appalled as I was at Kieran.”

The school communicated with incoming first years’ parents about this group, reiterating the school’s zero tolerance of bullying and directing them to resources. They also reassured Kieran and his parents that they would keep an eye out for him when he started school. But he and his parents were still apprehensive. The identity of the girl was unknown – and still is.

You would wonder where 12 year olds are getting this kind of language from. My concern, obviously, is that they are accessing pornography

—  Alex Cooney, chief executive of CyberSafeKids

All was fine initially and then the boy they knew was one of the chat abuse ringleaders started to become aggressive towards Kieran, jostling him in the school corridors.

“Kieran just fell apart; very anxious, wouldn’t go to school and got very, very sick. We had to have more interventions. Again the school were really good,” says Aisling. However, it got to the point where she, frankly, just wanted the other boy expelled but was prepared to meet the other parents to see if the situation could be sorted.

“The other parents didn’t want to meet, they wanted to deal with it themselves.” The boy was out of school for a couple of days and nothing has happened between him and Kieran since – “at least in real life, I don’t know what’s happening online”, Aisling remarks.

She believes the whole experience “has had a massive impact on Kieran. His confidence and self-esteem have been destroyed.” His behaviour has changed and his Christmas exam results were disappointing. “The trauma continues.”

The chief executive of CyberSafeKids, Alex Cooney, who has heard the (unpublishable) details of this case, says “you would wonder where 12S year olds are getting this kind of language from. My concern, obviously, is that they are accessing pornography.”

Some 28 per cent of children have experienced some form of bullying online, according to surveys her organisation conducted during its programmes in primary and secondary schools in 2021-22. A third of those children said they did not tell anyone about it.

Exclusion is one of the most common forms of online bullying, reports Cooney. It is another dimension of being isolated during the school day, as covered by several articles in The Irish Times recently, after which readers shared their experiences.

In being left out of online groups, children are “excluded from parties, events, outings – even just chat”, she points out. “Because they put so much store by the online interactions and online affirmation, it is much more isolating than you and I understand not having grown up with it.”

Even though Aisling has nothing but praise for Kieran’s school, their experiences indicate the complex nature of tackling bullying. One of the fundamental things school communities need to deal with is the sense of respect for each other, says the chief executive of the National Parents Council Primary ( Áine Lynch. She welcomes how the Department of Education’s new anti-bullying action plan has built on how the previous one approached that.

“We must also understand, with any bullying issue, it is not just the child who is being bullied we need to support, we also need to support the child who is bullying. That might be a really difficult message for families of children who have been hurt. But if we only rely on punishment, we are not really changing that behaviour.” In this respect, she describes as “really critical” the mental health supports outlined in the plan.

Another significant advance is the commitment to develop a national database by collecting information from all schools. “Up until now we constantly guess,” says Lynch, “or rely on a piece of research in one area.”

Read this article’s companion piece: How do I spot if my child is being bullied?

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman

Sheila Wayman, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health, family and parenting