‘I grew up in a liberal family environment and was known for my friendly demeanour. A tomboy, I enjoyed growing up in the company of male cousins, kicking a ball and playing in the dirt.
As I entered middle school, I began expanding my friends’ circle to include not just girls but boys as well. Maybe it was my tomboyish nature, but I found myself more comfortable in the company of boys than girls. And that was when things started getting nasty.
When we moved to high school, some of my friends had boyfriends. We would all go out in a group, and just as I was good friends with the girls I was also friends with the boys. However, some girls misinterpreted my actions and felt I was trying to be overly friendly with their boyfriends.
That’s when it all started. The girls started making extremely disparaging and negative comments about me on an anonymous Q&A chat site on which most of my schoolmates used to hang out.
The level of anonymity meant people could say just about anything, hiding behind their computer screens. The comments on me were nasty and malicious and were about my looks, weight, height, and my relationships both in and outside school. I was body shamed, and termed stupid. Some even said I’d had botox injections for my lips. Some pointedly told me to leave school and stop being a bother to others – all this only because I was friends with some of the girls’ boyfriends.
Initially, I didn’t think much of it. But soon the comments started getting worse, with people calling my morals into question.
Just because I didn’t fit into “normal social standards” – which meant attending parties and drinking – (I more enjoyed playing volleyball in the park) I was left to face a barrage of hurtful comments. Soon the comments moved from the anonymous chatline to personal ones.
Some of my good friends too started believing the rumours and began avoiding me or ignoring me, while also contributing to the rumours. And suddenly the online bullying turned alarming and aggressive. It moved from being about just me to the people around me. My family started being targeted, with rude comments being left about them. And the next thing I knew, students were commenting saying I should kill myself.
The issue escalated further, with some ‘friends’ using even Facebook and Snapchat to indulge in cyberbullying me.
Soon some teachers had bought into the rumours – I remember a teacher chiding me for ‘wasting time with the wrong company’. They started picking on me. I wasn’t strong in the sciences (I was more of an arts enthusiast) and a teacher pegged it to my ‘elaborate social life’. When I wanted to run for student president, a teacher told me my application was a joke and that I had no leadership qualities, that I was incapable. She said she would be doing me a favour by withdrawing my name from the candidates’ list to ‘save me from embarrassment.’
I was affected, mentally and physically.
I soon developed a very low self-esteem – something I still struggle with. It took a toll on my physical and emotional health. I failed in a subject for the very first time. I felt defeated. I stopped coming out of my room and shut everyone out, from friends to my parents to even my sister.
Though they didn’t know that I was being bullied, my parents started getting worried about my behaviour and my long periods of withdrawal into my room. Unable to get through to me, my mother once even got a few friends of hers to come meet me, hoping I’d be more comfortable revealing what was going on in my life to someone other than a parent.
I only told my parents about the bullying when I was in Grade 11, when it reached its peak and got so bad I didn’t think I could handle it. Over the summer break that year, they put me in therapy for depression and social anxiety and as silly as it sounds, as I had no close friends remaining I befriended my therapist and was very attached to her. My dad was furious at the students and teachers bullying me. My parents told me after the summer they were going to approach the school and if things didn’t get better, they would consider moving me to a new school. But I begged them not to. I wanted to graduate without further drama, and I worried changing schools and having to adjust to a new environment would throw me off and affect my studies.
Just as I started getting better with therapy, I had a relapse as more comments started to appear online. I got close to starting to self-harm, and knew it was a slippery slope towards developing suicidal tendencies.
If I were asked how I coped with the bullying, and finally got past it, I don’t have a straight answer. It was more of me coming to the realisation that I had to help myself, and push past it all somehow and live my life. That’s when I decided to distance myself from everything and everyone. I logged off social media and completely stopped reading anything said about me. I made a decision to focus only on my academics, and not the comments, or the people making them. I also listened to YouTubers Dan and Phil everyday – they’d talk about standing up to cyberbullies in a very humorous manner, and that helped me cope and understand that there’s more to life than worrying about the inevitable.
So I went back to school after that summer break with a clean slate, ready in my mind for a fresh start. And it worked.
My parents were very supportive through it, but there were times when I felt the overall attitude was more like “everyone goes through it, so take it above your head.”
The only two close friends I have now have helped me become happier and check on me regularly to ensure I don’t relapse in any way. I guess as I grew older, I gained more experience and in retrospect people probably go through worse scenarios in life – but no one should ever have to go through the trauma of being bullied’.
Anisha on turning victims into victors
We need to raise awareness
‘Awareness campaigns would have done a great deal for me at the peak of the bullying I experienced. People don’t talk about bullying as a cautionary stressor but just a willy-nilly term under a “smartphones are bad for you” umbrella. No one dives deep into the causes of physical bullying or cyberbullying. No one ever takes it seriously unless they see the scars – mental and physical. Even then, many victims are told they should have known better and made to feel as if it’s their fault. We need to have a sit-down discussion on cyberbullying, the root causes and the effects.
These causes start at home. Teaching children from a young age to accept differences, make inferences only after having factual evidence and to spread love is so vital. Parents can’t be rude to colleagues or friends and expect their kids to not model that behaviour. It’s also important to focus on bullies themselves, because they might be so unloved that they act out on others to feel better.’
Therapy needs to be more affordable
‘Therapists in the UAE need to reduce their rates exponentially. It costs about Dh600 for a session with a therapist here, a sum most kids and parents can’t afford. There also needs to be a hotline so victims can reach out if they are afraid to tell their parents what’s happening. Victims could be stressed out at 2am, when everyone is asleep. They need someone to talk to.
‘I would tell all those kids who are going through bullying now to keep their chin up. There will be a day when all of this ends. Find someone to talk to, if not family, then any confidante whom you trust. It’s important to vent rather than keep it within because that could lead to negative thoughts and behaviour. Take a break from social media and reading slurs and rude, threatening comments made about you. If your friend is a victim of bullying, don’t turn a blind eye to them as you never know if they’re going to make it through the trauma – bullying can get constricting to a point where you’re left without hope. Bullying requires patience, understanding and someone with authority to handle the situation delicately.’
* NAME CHANGED
‘Cyberbullying is often more hideous and insidious’
By Russell Hemmings
The nature of cyberbullying is that it’s often under the radar of parents and schools and can be very much ‘hidden in plain sight’. This can make it a complex challenge for parents as often young people become secretive and protective of their cyber world. As a result, it can lead to family conflict between parent and child, because parents’ worry levels are heightened and the child becomes increasingly defensive.
The emotional effects can continue
Any form of bullying seriously depletes a person’s confidence levels. This can lead to long-term problems such as low self-esteem, weight issues and even complex issues focused around food. Furthermore, cyberbullying can impact a child’s academic potential, harming chances of future career success and ultimately even financial security.
In fact, missed opportunities not taken in life can often be traced back to childhood events, as can relationship difficulties in adulthood.
A heightened level of danger
All bullying, regardless of where it takes place is dangerous. In the case of cyberbullying however, it is often more hidden and insidious and therefore more difficult to spot at an early stage, leading to the possibility that it has been taking place for some time before anyone finds out. Of course, some cyberbullying actually happens in the public domain and we all have a collective duty to stand up to it when we see it happening to others.
Cyberbullying may affect girls more
In my experience girls are much more likely to suffer at the hands of cyberbullies. In general, girls seem to be more susceptible to comments about their physical appearance (though, this is not to minimise the problem for boys too). During the teenage years, it appears to me that girls’ peer groups are often more fluid and fractious and this can be exploited by cyberbullies, especially those seeking power within a peer group. I have generalised here as this is a complex issue and at times requires expert intervention.
Parents can protect their teens on social media
Openness, dialogue and communication are the watchwords of effective teen parenting. Cultivating the environment where your teen can ‘open up to you’ is paramount. It is also vital that parents understand how social media works and are fully conversant with the security protections that do exist. Be vigilant, but not overly intrusive into their world as that can be suffocating. Being a good parent is like walking a tightrope; balance is everything.