What are some dangers that youth may face on the internet?
Using a computer for the first time earned laughter from my tech savvy best friend as I failed to grasp the concept of typing into the address bar. To be fair, “dot com” sounds like gibberish. It was 2001 and I was eight years old.
Three years later I was online unsupervised in forums on Neopets. With my own desktop (because my father didn’t want to share his), I began forming my social circle.
And then I was taken off site by a random message from someone I didn’t know well. It only took an instant for me, a trusting child, to wind up on an unmoderated forum. I was lucky, the forum was a Harry Potter writing community full of nine-to-nineteen-year-olds, but other children weren’t talking to who they thought and the links they received weren’t as kid-friendly. It was on this site I explored what suicide meant, and whether or not I wanted to try it. I was twelve, and making threats that amounted to “I have a knife on my desk, I’m deciding if I want to use it.”
Believe it or not, that wasn’t the true danger. The true danger was my best friend. Meeting Sarah on that forum was a toxic relationship from the start. Sarah was a month younger than me, and at the time we were both eleven in that transitional period before middle school. She lived in California, a destination that seemed worlds away from Utah at the time. Born to immigrant parents from Vietnam, her father had a menial job, her mother taught piano. Yet, Sarah had a laptop, something I envied.
We’ve all heard that bullies are often children who are bullied at home and need a sense of control, or to emulate the behaviors enacted on them to cope. Those who experience neglect, or outright abuse, will often feel a need to process, test relationships with friends, or simply express aggression and strength that they cannot reveal to their own aggressor.
Sarah was no different. I was often victim to her attacks, the target of her frustrations as she lashed out, highlighting my flaws with a cold, detached methodical nature. Impassioned, I’d fight back, but the victim’s tearful, frantic retorts often pale in comparison to the calculated words of the aggressor.
Being Sarah’s friend only got worse. At age thirteen I was excluded from an online community with no reason (other than that’s what preteens are inclined to do when forming their identity), and at eighteen? She professed she had fallen in love with my online crush before “stealing” him, leaving me without either of them, my best friends, to turn to. It was an absolutely awful way to feel just before starting university, and there was no reason for it.
Upon reflection, each chapter in our lives held some callous act by Sarah. To this day she’s still a Facebook friend that I speak to infrequently, but the pain and mistrust lingers.
I cried to my parents a few times during each of these “attacks”. They provided no assistance. How could they? When the admissions began it was the early 2000’s, before “cyberbullying” was something a parent knew about. I experienced depression. I felt isolated. And I developed some very harmful opinions of myself, of what I deserved, and who I could trust.
The internet is teeming with individuals, both young and old, experiencing mental illness, suicide ideation, the death of a loved one, and abuses of many varieties. Some seek the internet to escape responsibilities, like their parents, spouses, children, or even friends. Others seek internet connections as substitutes for those intimate bonds they lack offline.
I met many of them. Many who needed to be talked down from committing suicide by myself and others, many who confided legitimate crimes committed, many who alluded to crimes, and plenty who didn’t realize what they were experiencing was abuse.
It came out of left field when Sarah, now a university student, confided in me that she was contemplating suicide. I had thought it was a phase we got past when we were preteens – suicide wasn’t for us! We’d passed eighteen!
She was serious. She, in her typical, methodical fashion, had done her research. She knew how high a building had to be if she wanted to jump and ensure she wouldn’t survive the fall. Plan B was taking pills to attempt to combat her fight-or-flight instinct, before walking onto the rails of a subway.
When she told me I was nine and a half hours away from her. I didn’t know her friends offline, the ones at the university she lived near, or her family. She was an isolated entity, and at nineteen I didn’t know what to do.
In hindsight I should have anonymously reported it to her university at the very least. I could have found her family on Facebook, I could have handled the entire situation better. In the moment I felt lost, and aside from being there to talk, I did nothing for Sarah.
Sarah told someone. Sarah told me. She had a plan, and she had admitted it to someone else, solidifying her resolve to commit the act. She picked her best friend.
The truth is, no matter what the internet provides society, it robbed Sarah of the resources she could have desperately used to mitigate the emotions she was feeling when she felt she couldn’t succeed as a university student.
To this day I still feel a profound regret for not helping her. I consider her every time I feel annoyed at someone online. The memory of her on the edge leaves me envisioning everyone on the edge, just one rebuke from suicide.
There is no doubt there are threats online. Unmoderated conversations, trusting children, the potential for sexual abuse, and of course cyberbullying and the stress of children coping with issues well beyond their maturity level.