Last updated at 4:51 AM on 24th February 2011
Bullied to death: Public schoolgirl Natasha MacBryde, 15, died after being struck by a train on the railway line near Bromsgrove
Fans of the internet never tire of proclaiming its virtues.
Communications, business, travel, entertainment and shopping have all been transformed — opening up new worlds, enriching people’s lives and vastly expanding consumer choice.
Yet the darker side of the internet has all too often been ignored. Just as computers can be a force for good, so they can promote misery and harm. In our brave new cyber world, freedom of communication can degenerate into a licence to abuse.
The truth is that the internet has opened up a window on the cruel and vicious side of human nature. In the virtual sphere, online sadists operate with impunity.
On many websites, particularly those aimed at the young, the boundaries of normal, civilised behaviour have been replaced by the sort of savage anarchy famously portrayed in William Golding’s novel Lord Of The Flies, in which civilised prep school boys turn into savages.
The consequences were highlighted this week by the tragic case of Natasha MacBryde, a 15-year-old schoolgirl who committed suicide after a remorseless campaign of internet bullying.
But that was not all. The malice that had led to her death continued on the internet, causing more anguish to her distraught family.
A Facebook website set up in Natasha’s memory was invaded by a deluge of offensive comments, ranging from sick jokes about the manner of her death to spiteful remarks about her character. This form of cyber bullying is known as ‘trolling’.
A Facebook site set up in Natasha’s memory (right) was invaded by spiteful, offensive comments. Left, a written tribute to the much loved pupil and daughter
One of the worst forms of on-line bullying comes from the so-called ‘trolls’, who post outrageous comments to get a perverted thrill from the reaction they provoke. As Natasha’s father, Andrew, said: ‘I simply cannot understand how these people get any enjoyment or satisfaction from making such disgraceful comments.’
Sadly, Natasha MacBryde’s case is not unique. Persecution through the web, by mobile phone, text or micro-blogging site Twitter is rife among young people.
My own family has direct experience of this appalling phenomenon, which resulted in the death of our beloved son, Matthew, in December 2008, when he was just 17.
Matthew had been a bright, happy child who loved playing on computers. But from the age of ten, he started to be bullied at school, perhaps because he was not as keen on sport as other boys.
The ordeal he had to endure was appalling. He was tormented by a gang of about 20 bullies, who never left him alone. They would taunt him, and steal from him, everything from pens to his bike. When the risibly named ‘happy slappy’ craze was at its height, they used their mobile phones to film their attacks on him, deepening his sense of being an outcast.
Tragic death: Matthew Jones committed suicide in 2008 aged 17 after the bullying became too much for him
Technology worsened the pain, as he was subjected to a endless stream of heartless messages on his phone and his computer.
Bullies love the internet for several reasons. First, they can indulge in cruelty behind the mask of anonymity. Those who hurl abuse in public risk themselves but, in the virtual world, there is no such danger. Even the most malicious threats cannot easily be traced.
Not surprisingly, it all became too much for my son. He grew severely depressed and had to be treated by the mental health services. A mix of counselling and medication led to an improvement, with the result that he passed his GCSEs and went on to sixth-form college.
But the old problems of isolation and bullying soon returned. Matthew sank into despair. So dark was his despondency that he began to log on to a series of websites that promoted suicide. It seems unbelievable such websites are allowed to exist, since they openly encourage vulnerable people to take their own lives.
There may be a proper debate over the issue of assisted suicide for the terminally ill, yet here we have, in the online world, bloggers who goad people into killing themselves.
‘If you’re still here tomorrow, you’re just a chicken,’ is one typical taunt. For Matthew, the result was all too predictable. In December 2008, he gassed himself, having left a final message: ‘I used to be headstrong, happy and optimistic, but after seven years of fighting I have no fight left in me.’
The internet even facilitated his demise, for it was on eBay he bought the gas canister that killed him.
The tragedies we and the MacBryde families have suffered are, I believe, an entirely modern phenomenon. There was nothing like this level of bullying when I was at school.
In a recent survey, half of all 14-year-olds said that they had been bullied, mostly via Twitter or Facebook.
When one anti-bullying charity set up a website in March 2009, 23,000 youngsters visited it in the first three weeks, a graphic indication of the scale of the problem.
Internet unleashed: With scenes of unimaginable violence and sexual depravity just a click away, the internet is desensitising our children
The internet has also encouraged the misguided belief that such viciousness is acceptable, being just another aspect of the kaleidoscope of human existence. In the virtual sphere, all barriers of what’s right and wrong, moral or immoral, have disappeared.
With scenes of unimaginable violence and sexual depravity just a click away, the internet is desensitising us, robbing us of normal human emotions. And the results are terrifying. Children are especially vulnerable to this, with studies showing that youngsters who have been exposed to violent images on the internet are desensitised to real-life violence.
Instead of challenging this barbarous culture, social networking sites are ignoring their responsibilities and choosing instead to profit spectacularly from this murky business.
Service providers, website managers and the Government ought to be responsible for cracking down on the widespread bullying and threats, yet they act as if they are powerless.
Facebook, for instance, could provide tougher monitoring of its users. But that would cost money which it doesn’t want to spend.
Similarly, Government ministers could introduce stronger regulation of websites. After all, the Government had no problem outlawing smoking throughout the nation.
Enforcing a sense of on-line responsibility should not be beyond the wit of our political leaders if the will existed.
If the present anarchic cruelty is allowed to continue, there will be more cases like those of Natasha and our son, Matthew.
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