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Saturday, March 07, 2015

Five little words...the impact of online bullying

I love you so much, you are everything to me, will you get milk please? These are all simple examples of small sentences of just five words, which might make you feel loved, happy or useful, but recently, I saw the impact that just five words can have, when I was a victim of online bullying, as I was trolled on Twitter. 

I entered a Ryanair competition to win free flights and had to post a picture of myself with my partner and where we wanted to go. 

Even though I use social media a lot and have quite an active online presence, I thought about this competition first and made sure my boyfriend was comfortable with it, but once the possibility of a free flight was put out there, he was grand with it. 

Naturally, I chose a photograph where we both look nice and I happened to have one that had been taken at a family barbecue by professional photographer Eddie Hennessy in Cork. 

Within minutes of posting the entry, a Twitter user @celticpaddy2 had commented "@quinnsandra go to Weight Watchers first" - it's worth noting that he had just 13 followers and I have more than 1,200, but as soon as I read the comment I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. 

I didn't even know how to react, but I immediately blocked him and reported the comment as abuse to Twitter. As the day wore on, I felt worse and worse - I had a pain in my chest, I felt sick and I kept crying (almost hysterically). 

For anyone who knows me, they know that these are not my usual reactions if someone says something a little harsh to me. I come from a big family and would consider myself to be quite thick skinned and resilient, but I was shocked by how much those five little words had affected me. 

In the photo I chose, you actually cannot even see my body, so I realised pretty quickly that he had made the comment simply for the purpose of being nasty and cruel, without any true cause or justification behind the remark (not that a mean comment is ever justified). 

A quick perusal of his Twitter page also showed that he had gone on a spate of hurling abusive and mean comments at people he didn't know, who, like me, had innocently entered an online competition. 

Quite often when I put things online, I am not only expecting interaction and engagement from the public, but I invite it. This was different – it was a personal photograph and was, quite honestly, one of the most innocent online interactions I've had. 

I've been working as a journalist for the past five years and as someone who has covered court, personal and neighbour related disputes and a number of controversial issues - I have been on the receiving end of my fair share of abuse, but it was the unexpected nature of this comment that got to me. 

It was cruel, nasty, unprovoked and unwarranted - I think I would have been less shocked if someone had actually walked up to me and slapped me across the face. 

While I got over the comment itself quite quickly, as I didn't think he put all that much thought into it, what got to me was that this one comment had deeply affected me. I’m a self-assured and confident young woman, happy with my own self-image and it made me consider how someone more vulnerable might react to such an attack. 

What if it had been said to someone with low self-esteem issues or someone who was on the cusp of a mental breakdown - those five words could have been the catalyst to tip them over the edge and cause them to do something drastic.  

The other side of this incident is that because it was online, there was no recourse for me, aside from blocking the user. If someone said something nasty to my face, I could just turn around and tell them that it wasn't acceptable for them to speak to me like that. 

It was a classic case of a 'keyboard warrior', where someone made a comment from behind their laptop or smart phone and knew that there wouldn't be any consequences. 

Following on from the comment, that night I contacted every radio station, television show and newspaper I knew and by the next morning, my phone was on fire with people hoping to talk to me about it. 

I spoke to Patricia Messinger on C103 about it on Wednesday, February 11 and was really impressed not only by her empathy, but the way she dealt with the topic, as the incident had ironically happened on Internet Safety Day. 

I then spoke to Neil Prendeville on Red FM on the Thursday, there was a front page article in The Avondhu, my own paper on the same day and The Evening Echo ran a story on it on the Saturday. Then I was in Dublin speaking to Matt Cooper on The Last Word on Today FM about it on Tuesday, February 17. 

I felt sick, couldn't eat and didn't sleep for days - I was quite thrown by the physical manifestation of the emotional turmoil that one comment had caused. 

It was a horrible thing to happen, but it was just one comment – some people have to cope with this kind of abuse on an ongoing basis, which I can only imagine eats away at them and breaks down their resolve piece by piece. 

On the other hand, in a way I'm kind of glad, in a weird way, that it happened to me, because I became quite pro-active and used the incident, vile and disgusting as it was, as a catalyst to prompt discussion about online safety, cyber bullying and what can be done to get people to stop and think before they post something online. 

Hopefully nothing like this will ever happen to me again, but I feel like the experience has made me stronger and it is something that I will probably draw upon at other points in my life. 

I will not let someone I don't know make me feel worthless or small – I am a strong, successful professional and I do not need to let a stranger impact negatively on my life.

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