Why Online Trolling Is Killing Our Children And What We Can Do About It
By James Mills, Lighthouse International Associate Partner
I’ve decided to write about the tragic reality that we have increasing numbers of children and young people attempting to take their lives because of online trolling. I’ve decided to share a personal account of my experiences with bullying with the expectation that this reaches those who have also developed an ‘irrational inferiority’ but want to overcome that in order to be able to help vulnerable children stand up for themselves. Please pass this on to those you feel genuinely care about this issue and want to be part of the solution…
The reality of suicide in our children and young people
The British Journal of Psychiatry published a study in November 2020 revealing that 7% of UK children have attempted suicide by the age of 17… yes, you read that right, 7%! To make that more real for you, that’s the rough equivalent of two children in EVERY single UK classroom; from Year 1 to Year 12. When I read that I was personally shocked, although I was sadly not surprised given what I’ve been learning over the last 16 years about the reality of the challenges facing our young people and how they are affected. This has caused me to also reflect on my own personal experiences growing up and to empathise as to how this statistic is even possible. I wanted to share this with those who genuinely care about children as a whole AND want to be part of the solution to do something rather than be a passive observer. These are big problems and as someone who worked for leading charities with schools for 7 years, I felt like the difference I was making was minimal and the problems seem to be getting worse rather than better.
Recently myself and members of the team at Lighthouse International have heard examples of children as young as 5 years old having suicidal thoughts from teaching professionals in schools. Behind these statistics are young, innocent children, full of potential with their whole life ahead of them wanting instead to take their own life. Then we have freshers at top universities deciding that the pressure of life is too much for them, that ending it all is a more favourable option than reaching out for help and working through whatever personal challenges they’re facing. Social scientists have stated that millennials are the most infantilised, fragile generation to date and they are killing themselves hand over fist as a result. Does that surprise or shock you?
When I ask people whether humanity is getting better or worse, they often say better. They cite developments in technology or the fact that we can talk more openly about issues like racism, sexuality or the destruction of the environment…. YET the fact that our children see increasingly less value, meaning, reason and purpose in their lives, in their futures is something that rarely gets mentioned. It’s a BIG elephant in the room that so many of us (understandably) don’t even want to know is happening, talk about, let alone take responsibility for and do something about. “Everyone’s doing their bit”, “people are busy”, “there needs to be more funding for XYZ”, “what can I do?”… these are the statements that very subtly abscond our responsibility to ensure we are doing our best to prepare the next generation for the future. I know that because I’ve used my fair share of such statements over my life!
I’m not exaggerating things as though it’s a problem ‘out there’; a number of close friends and business partners have not just contemplated suicide, but have actually attempted to take their own lives for various reasons. And that’s before I even get to those I know indirectly through others. We can read or hear that suicide is the biggest killer of males under the age of 45, but what do we do with that? Do we feel disempowered or do we come together with others who genuinely care to actually do something about the silent, but very real, pandemic that’s extinguishing more lives than COVID-19?
My personal battles with bullying and suicide
Reflecting personally on this is humbling, as someone who has also contemplated suicide as a young person in my teens and twenties. I never reached threshold… things weren’t desperate enough to follow through on these thoughts and frankly speaking, the motives for me considering suicide were mostly attention-seeking. From my personal experience suicidal thoughts were very subtle and fleeting; “What if I took this knife and put it into my stomach?” whilst in the kitchen, “Just steering suddenly to the right will cause a head-on collision” whilst driving, “What if I just jumped now?” when stood at the top of a high building and “What would people say at my funeral if I killed myself now?”.
This was all happening inside my soul despite ticking the boxes of life; a pretty-much straight ‘A’ student with a degree from a top university, speaker of foreign languages, well-travelled and blue-chip companies on my CV before I’d turned 23. Why would I even feel that way? It makes no sense, right? I’d done all my teachers and family had asked of me after all.
However, these surface-level achievements covered over the darkened reality at the core of my soul; emotionally scarred by my parents’ failed marriage and emotionally weakened to the point where I couldn’t socialise with any level of confidence. Academic success was my escape route, to avoid causing more chaos at home and so I worked like a trojan to excel academically. I had no other option, I was pushed about at school and would’ve had no confidence or social ability to find work after school. Some would argue what I faced was banter, but as a sensitive soul I couldn’t handle myself when I had mates call me a wimp, steal sweets, push me about, make cutting remarks or draw pictures of scenarios that depicted my death. I dreaded those 15 minutes of registration time at the start of the school day in case I was targeted with something my way – trying to avoid being the centre of any attention and hide in the shadows where I could. This is a demon I am still wrestling with today as someone in my forties and I have to, because if I don’t, I play small and my ability to help others face their own demons (internal and external) is limited.
I remember aged 12 or 13 one morning, having a cutting comment that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and it was too much for me to deal with. So I tried to cry to escape (the sad face without the tears, because boys don’t cry, right?). A mate who was one of the perpetrators suddenly became sympathetic and accompanied me to reception as I tried to get out of school; blaming an argument at home on the cause of my distress because I feared admitting my true weakness in front of my peers. I was never taught how to stand up for myself – sympathy-seeking was a last-resort, but risky tactic for me as a male. On this occasion, the risk paid off and temporarily took away the symptomatic pain, but the chronic underlying issues were not addressed. It was through keeping my head down and dogged persistence that I got through years of torment to get to university where things seemed to become easier because of having a little more control over who I spent my time with and what I did.
That was my experience back in the 80s and 90s, but now we have the worldwide web and bullying has moved from offline 9am-3pm 5 days a week to online 24/7. And so now many of our sensitive children are a thousand times more vulnerable than I was as a child. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown have escalated things even further on top of online trolling via social media.
How online trolling is killing our children
One experience I was told recently highlights how it plays out today… After the Euro 2020 final a teenage girl, aged 13 wrote a slightly racist comment online about the missed penalties by England players. It lacked maturity and respect, but what then happened is this girl was subsequently hounded online for what she’d written. She was met with almighty vitriol online by so-called ‘adults’ and children alike. Word got out at the girl’s school and the online abuse turned to offline, in-person abuse was directed at her with the limited ability to defend herself. One week later this all got too much and after returning from a day of facing a barrage of hatred she arrived home, picked up the dog lead, went to her room, turned up the stereo and proceeded to hang herself. Her dad responded to her subsequent cry for help and tried to save her, but it was too late. She breathed her last breaths in the ambulance on the way to A&E. I welled up when hearing this because yet another life was unnecessarily lost… a 13-year-old girl pushed to suicide because of a foolish comment she made online.
Her death would be logged as suicide, but the cause was online trolling. That’s right, online trolling is KILLING our children. And this is learnt from somewhere… it’s not a healthy and natural way for an innocent child to behave. So where do they learn it? They learn it from the way that so-called adults treat each other and even their own children as if it’s an accepted part of human behaviour. Don’t believe me? Check out the anger-fuelled debates online, the vile criticism that high-profile people receive on mass. We see outwardly-successful grown-ups kill themselves because of such criticism, so how can we expect innocent children to handle this? Part of the work that I and we have been doing at Lighthouse is learning what’s at the root of online trolling and how to deal with it.
And where does online trolling originate? In one word; narcissism! The self-obsession, the feeling of self-importance, the desire to break others down and gain significance at the expense of others. Narcissism comes in many shapes and forms… at Lighthouse we’ve seen how it is a significant reason why conscientious people aren’t able to make the difference they want to make in their lives. We’ve even seen families and so-called friends sabotage someone’s progress because of the narcissism present; for instance, when a passive person stops being passive, it’s often met with resistance! It could be gossiping behind the back, cynical questions, patronising expressions of concern, cutting remarks or even anonymous trolling online with the intention to break down. Sadly we see many so-called adults indulging in online (and offline) trolling because of their narcissism and children are learning from them.
As I write this, I am involved in documenting a real-life situation of online abuse as we consult with leading professionals on learning how best to handle such scenarios and help others to do the same. To this I will add that only now in my early forties am I learning how to stand up for myself. I’ve recently come to see how there have even been people in my own family bullying me without me realising. That’s been an incredibly bitter pill to swallow!
If you’re not part of the solution, then we need to find those who want to be!
So, where do we go from here? Myself and the team at Lighthouse International have decided that enough is enough and that we need to bring together the genuinely caring individuals who no longer want to stand by and do nothing. We need more highly-influential and resourceful benefactors capable of investing the love, care, wisdom and resources required to ensure children are protected from online abuse. We can’t pretend this will magically go away, think that governments and charities have it in hand or that it’s now too big to do something about. We need to empower sensitive children and their parents to be able to face online trolling head on and stop these human crimes from ending more lives.
As someone who spent a number of years working in the charity sector I’ve seen firsthand that governments and charities are far too stretched and bureaucratic to solve these issues; we need to find alternative solutions and we need to find them fast. I’ve invested the last 12 years of my life; significant amounts of time, money and effort to face my own personal demons. I’ve done this because I’ve felt the need for me to become someone who’s capable of helping others with their personal challenges. At the same time I want to be doing something about the issue of online abuse and other issues close to my heart. In fact at times I’ve even been criticised for doing this… this is the world we live in! The significant majority of people fear looking at themselves, to swallow bitter pills and face reality… I say this out of compassion, I was very much one of those people until I realised I couldn’t keep running away from my problems.
I’ve shared my journey not for sympathy, but for reassurance to those who have battled with bullying for their whole lives and want to address that. This is the power of combining mentoring, coaching and counselling… I’ve seen myself and committed people around me transform because of it; when they’ve been prepared to do what it takes to be the best they can be as a genuinely loving, caring and empathic person who also has fortitude in times of adversity. As a heads up it’s not for the faint-hearted; genuine transformation is far too romanticised and that’s part of the reason why the self-help industry has a tainted image as people are sold on quick-fix solutions….
If you’d like to develop yourself through investing in developing your leadership and your entrepreneurial capabilities through developing your ability to stand for something and to be someone who can be part of the solution rather than passively read the headlines of these tragedies, then I’d love to hear from you.
How to take action…
For more on how you can receive the mentoring, coaching and counselling to overcome impacts of the bullying (past and present) AND be able to able to help others (especially children), please register your interest on the Lighthouse International site: Mentoring & Coaching with Lighthouse International
Thank you very much James for your own personal growth journey from difficult beginnings, to the reality of what children are being subjected to now with the inclusion of trolling adding to childhood dramas and traumas. As a society, we have to wake up to what is happening in the hearts and souls of each other that such cruelty exists. I have always been concerned with the many violent “online games” of exterminating the foe and wondered when life would mimic such violence without conscience, emotional or physical, and ultimately spiritual as our children out of desperation take their own lives.
Thank you very much for these really essential words to awaken any dormant conscience. “If you’re not part of the solution, then we need to find those who want to be!”
Thank you James for sharing your experiences and the deep reflection that you have been doing. I have read different ‘reports’ online and studies filled with statistics of the increasing suicide rates, but to hear your personal experiences, that of those who are close to you and those you know is so moving. It ought not to be the way that hearing your personal reflections make things seem ‘real’ because they are real – As you are sharing, these are the very hard hitting truths about the devastating impact of online trolling and bullying on young people, amongst many other challenges. This is an area where there is so much work to be done! Thank you again.
Thank you James, I don’t know how to put it in to words, but what you have shared here is so harrowing and heartbreaking in equal measure. But it must be shared because I know how much I turn again for that reason and our children feel alone and unsupported. I will make sure to share this and pass this on to anyone that can help here. Thank you for caring enough to write this.