The bullies behind computer screens

When Lizzie Velasquez was 17 she came across a YouTube video entitled “The World’s Ugliest Woman”. Not knowing what was in store, she clicked on the video, purely as part of her procrastination. She was shocked when she found that the video was in fact an eight-second clip of herself that had been viewed over four million times.

Lizzie Velasquez is now 26 and has had a rare condition all her life that stops her gaining weight. She has never weighed more than 64lbs and is blind in her right eye. Having been born with this condition, she has grown up facing many difficulties not only to do with her health, but also with bullying. She recalls that when she started kindergarten her classmates recoiled from her, and since then she had faced almost daily bullying because of her looks. When she found the video online, she said: “I couldn’t bring myself to talk to anybody about it, I didn’t tell any of my friends, I was just so shocked that it had happened.”

Instead of letting her illness and people’s harsh words negatively affect her life, Velasquez decided to think positively and she said she could use it as a chance to “improve myself and inspire other people”. She has her own YouTube channel and has written three self-help books in her attempts to inspire and aid those who are being bullied.

Velasquez is not alone in being a victim of such harsh cyberbullying, which is becoming increasingly common with the ability to make anonymous comments and messages to anyone online. Although cyberbullying is largely a young people’s issue, online harassment of adults is also a serious problem.

This harassment or bullying can clearly have very negative effects on children’s mental health. According to the Mental Health Foundation, mental health problems affect about one in ten children and young people. These problems include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder, and are often exacerbated by what is happening in their lives. Of course, at such an early stage, so many aspects of children’s lives can affect their development and transition into adulthood.

An important factor that contributes to a child’s mental health is their parents and those around them. Although Velasquez attributes much of her success in positive thinking to her supportive and loving parents, many children do not have this support, or feel that they cannot tell people about their problems. This can further their mental health issues, which in turn can in fact lead to the victims becoming bullies themselves, creating a vicious cycle.

The old saying ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ could not be more wrong. When Velasquez found the damaging video, she found that the comments added very literal insult to injury, one comment reading: “Why would her parents keep her?!”, and another: “kill it with fire”. It is these kinds of anonymous comments that are thought by the Anti-bullying Alliance to induce anxiety in up to one in six young people, which includes social phobias, generalised anxiety problems, panic attacks and obsessive compulsive disorder. At the age of 17, it is admirable that Velasquez used these venomous comments to fight against bullying.

With such easy anonymity online, bullying and harassment is an ever-present problem, only adding to the more well-known types of bullying found on the playground. Although there are many organisations such as ChildLine, Young Minds, and BullyingUK offering support to young people struggling with bullying, having a supportive group of people around can help immensely for young people, and is an important factor for anyone suffering from harassment or mental illness.

 

Photograph: Michael Maggs

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