Cruel bullies in Harrogate are targeting girls as young as 11 in a “terrifying” online trend, prompting a series of suicide and self-harm attempts.
Harrogate students have been bullied on the Latvian website Ask.fm, branded a “stalkers’ paradise” by campaigners as it has no age restrictions and allows postings to be anonymous.
One Harrogate mother, who called in police after her daughter was targeted, said she was left stunned by what she witnessed online.
“This is a level of bullying that nobody should have to deal with,” said the woman, who asked to stay anonymous to protect the identity of her Year 7 daughter. “They are willing people to commit suicide.”
A number of Harrogate girls, aged 11 to 15 and at various different schools, have been targeted in recent months.
Policies have been put in place at schools across the town, banning certain websites, setting up programmes and links for parents.
But more needs to be done at home, they say, to protect young people.
“Parents are giving their children computer equipment which is more sophisticated than man used to land on the moon,” said St John Fisher’s headteacher Paul Jackson. “They have to take responsibility for what they are doing with it.”
Assemblies and awareness weeks have been held in school and peer-support systems have been put in place.
Certain sites, including Ask.fm, are banned and police have even been called in on occasions when it has gotten out of hand.
“The problem comes when they leave school, when they are allowed 24-hour access to the internet,” said Mr Jackson. “We can’t watch them all the time.”
Rossett headteacher Pat Hunter, whose school has won awards for its anti-bullying scheme, said modern technology makes it too easy for young people to be exposed.
And principal Andrew Bayston, of Harrogate High School, said Ask.fm was one of the worst as it isn’t policed or monitored in the same way as other sites like Facebook or Twitter.
“What we need is for the Government to act more quickly in making sure they are protecting our young people,” he said. “They need to put measures in to act on and shut down sites.
“There are some good sites,” he added. “But I haven’t seen any good come from Ask.fm.”
The website has repeatedly come under fire in the national press after three girls, two aged 15 and one aged 13, killed themselves in Ireland after being hounded online last year.
It hasn’t responded to requests by the Harrogate Advertiser to comment on recent developments, but founder Mark Terebin, in response to a question posted by a member of the public on his own page, said: “Mass media is knocking on wrong door. It is necessary to go deeper and to find a root of a problem. Its not about the site, the problem is about education, about moral values that were devaluated lately.
“Ask.fm is just a tool which helps people to communicate with each other, same as any other social network, same as phone, same as piece of paper and pen.”
11-year-old taunted online
Cyber bullies mercilessly taunted an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Harrogate, calling on her to commit suicide to “make everyone happy”.
The youngster, so frightened to return to school after the online attacks, had to seek counselling to help build her confidence back up.
She had been targeted after falling out with a friend over Christmas, with scores of comments known as ‘hate’ posted on her Ask.fm profile page.
She was asked online why she wasn’t dead yet, told she was friendless and to watch her back as her bullies knew where she lived.
“I am your worst nightmare,” her tormentor said on posts seen by the Advertiser, urging her to kill herself as it would be “best for everyone”.
“Die or else... I mean it,” they said. “Commit suicide, you will make everyone happy.”
Her mother, speaking anonymously to the Harrogate Advertiser, said the level of abuse was “terrifying”.
“I was disgusted and horrified that people who were friends had turned so violently against her,” she said. “She had to go to school and face them, not knowing who had said these hurtful things. You feel exposed to a nastiness that you can’t see or stop. But that’s how they get their kicks.”
She said her daughter had turned to her for help after the abuse spiralled out of control.
“She didn’t know who it was,” said her mother, adding that two other girls at the same school were hospitalised for self-harming over Christmas. “At least with old fashioned bullying you could stand up for yourself.”
She said many parents didn’t know about websites like Ask.fm until it was too late.
“I’m IT savvy,” she said. “But I’d never even heard of Ask.fm before it happened to us. This is a dangerous place for our children to be. It’s a firework, just waiting to go off.”
She has contacted Ask.fm, but says they stopped replying to her emails after requesting a reference number.
She is calling on them to disable the anonymous setting, or at least for it to be made obviously optional. She is also asking them to set up a system where bullies can be reported and has set up a Facebook page in protest, called Remove Anonymous Option from Ask.fm.
“These young people are so impressionable,” she said. “Children are not ready or able to protect themselves from this.”
When she took her daughter for therapy, she said, the counsellor told her she had already seen two girls in Harrogate that day for the same thing.
“We try and give children the independence that they need to find their own way,” she said. “But they are at a time in their lives when they are uncertain about themselves. They are being told they are fat, ugly. That’s where eating disorders come from. Cutting, even suicide attempts.
“How far does it have to go and how many lives does it have to cost before something is done about it?”
Girl, 13, told to drink bleach
One Harrogate girl, aged just 13, attempted suicide a fortnight ago. In the days before bullies had said she was fat, she should hang herself, drink bleach, or jump in front of a bus. “Everyone would be happier if you died,” the bullies said. “Your life is a fail.” She was hospitalised after attempting suicide, but in the days after was branded an “attention seeker” and a “liar”. “Wish you took more pills,” said one anonymous user. “Bet you didn’t even go to the hospital,” said another. A 15-year-old Harrogate girl had scores of “hate” on her page. “You’re ugly, a fat, bi skank,” read one. “You whore, overdose or something nobody wants you here,” read another. “Come on please just die in a hole or something,” read more abuse. “You should be ashamed to be alive, come on kill yourself!” Another Harrogate schoolgirl, who admitted online to having cut herself before, was told to try harder. “Hope you got a brand new blade for Christmas so that you can cut yourself a lot better,” said one comment, others taunting that she was “ugly, ugly, ugly” and that she should “do everyone a favour and die.”
‘More needs to be done’
Police working to protect young people say it is difficult to take action against sites like Ask.fm.
Jonathan Baggaley, head of education at the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, said: “The comments posted can be extremely hurtful, upsetting and potentially harmful and the anonymous nature of these sites make it difficult to take action in response to these incidents.”
Supt Aubrey Smith, Harrogate Safer Neighbourhood Commander, has been working with local schools after being approached by parents.
“It can have devastating effects on young people who are quite vulnerable because of their age,” he said. “People feel brave. They feel big enough to say things they would never have the guts to say face to face. But it’s a cowardly act of bullying. Anybody can hide behind a computer.”
More needs to be done to monitor the sites, he said.
“I firmly believe the responsibility lies with the websites to ensure bullying behaviour isn’t allowed to continue,” he said. “It’s placing the rights and lives of others at risk.”