Growing Up In The Digital Age


I think it’s a truth universally acknowledged that growing up is tough.

Every generation of teenagers have faced their own set of trials and tribulations; many of them unique to that era.

For my parents – born in the seventies and teenagers in the eighties – they had to contend with the threat of nuclear war hovering overhead – “Threads”, the terrifying TV drama depicting life in a nuclear winter, was released in 1984 -, and the widespread belief that the emergence of HIV and AIDS would spell the end for humanity.

I was a teenager in the late noughties and early ’10s. Cyberbullying was barely on our radar at that point, save for a few isolated incidents, but the dangers of technology weren’t lost on us. We were taught to be hyper-vigilant for paedophiles and groomers online, with police officers coming into school to show us PSAs and warning signs, and the “emo craze” resulting in people boasting about self-harm online and encouraging others to do the same.

As technology develops, so too do the ways it can be used to cause harm. These days, the current teenage generation’s biggest technological worry isn’t the threat of war from afar, or inappropriate messages from strangers. It’s their own peers – the people they share classrooms and playgrounds with. Their best friend in the day can become their tormentor by night, safe behind a computer, phone, or iPad.

Cyberbullying has never felt more prevalent or terrifying. I was cyberbullied when I was about twelve – I found messages that peers were exchanging on Bebo, laughing at me and calling me names. It also happened a little later on, when some “friends” turned against me very publicly, and their parents got involved. At the time, it was awful. Seeing peers, “friends” and grown adults attacking me without provocation, right there in black and white on the screen in front of me, felt horrendous.

In hindsight, I realise that – although it was wrong of them to do it – it had nothing on the level of vitriol teenagers are receiving online today. It’s impossible not to be heartbroken by the story of Megan Evans, a 14-year-old girl who was cyber-bullied over Snapchat and Facebook.

“The last message was ‘Why don’t you hang yourself?’, and Megan replied, ‘OK, I will.”

These are young teenagers telling people to go and hang themselves. I find it so incomprehensible that this is happening. At fourteen I knew what suicide was, but the thought of telling someone to commit suicide would be absolutely unthinkable, no matter how much I disliked them. Not just that it’s wrong – the thought wouldn’t cross my mind. What are children being exposed to that this thought occurs to them – and that some of them actively encourage others to end their lives?

According to the UK Annual Bullying Survey 2016, 1.5 million people aged 12-20 have been bullied in the last year. 19% of those are bullied daily – that’s 145,800 people being bullied every day. 33% of those being bullied have suicidal thoughts, and that shoots up to 50% of those bullied every day. It’s easy to turn it into percentages and statistics, but the stark reality is that 495,000 children have had suicidal thoughts in the last year because of bullying. We appear to be in the middle of some kind of bullying epidemic, and the rise of social media isn’t helping matters.

It’s easy to think that your teenager is too old or too young to be at risk from bullying – online and in person – but, sadly, they aren’t. Felix Alexander took his own life at the age of 17 in April 2016, having been subject to taunts online from the age of 10. 11-year-old Asad Khan was found hanged last September, and his school friends said that he had been bullied too. Teens who seem, to all intents and purposes, well-liked and happy and content, are being tormented to the point of suicide by their own peers.

Where does it all stop? I was reading this morning about a “game” children are playing on Snapchat, called “Letter X”. Someone sends the letter “X” to a person, who then replies with the name of a victim. The other players then have to come up with as many insults as possible about the person; the more hurtful the better. Insults focus on weight, appearance, personality and more.

As far as I’m aware, when I was younger, bullies knew they were being mean. Perhaps they didn’t feel bad about it – they thought their victim deserved it in some way – but they knew that what they were doing wasn’t nice. It was something they’d try to keep hidden – bullies were sneaky and underhand.

Bullying used to be a shameful secret. Now it’s a game.

Now it’s a game. Now they boast about their prowess, they revel in their bullying behaviour with their friends; they celebrate who can come up with the worst insult. What’s the overall goal of the game? To kill someone? Do they keep tallies of the peers they’ve driven to suicide; is it a competition to see who can have the most deaths to their name?

It terrifies me for the future. If this is the reality of bullying now, what will it be like in ten years, when SB is about to turn thirteen? What new ways will there be to torment children and drive them to doing the unthinkable?

How do you prevent it? Do you forbid your child from having access to social media, or does this put them at risk of more bullying for being “different” and “out of the loop”? Do you check your child’s accounts frequently and pray that you don’t miss anything? Who do you tackle when you find that bullying is happening? The children are unrepentant; the parents are unlikely to care; the school’s hands are tied.

When I was bullied as a child, home was my sanctuary. I could escape from the bullies who made my seven-year-old life miserable because I came from England, because I spoke differently, because I worked hard and didn’t watch the same TV and movies and I looked different. At home, I was safe from their words.

Children today don’t have that sanctuary. There is no escape from the 24-hour stream of vitriol and hatred and cruelty. When the cycle never ends, some children only see one way to end it – by ending everything.

It’s a terrifying time to be a teenager, but even more terrifying to be a parent.

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