I recently learned about the devastating and continuing effects that a friend’s cyber bullying has had for a woman and her whole family. Several years ago, Susan (not her real name) began to complain about ‘not nice’ texts and online messages she was receiving from a longtime friend (here called Anne). Both young women have moderate intellectual disabilities. Her mother suggested that Susan should delete the messages and tell Anne that she didn’t like them. But the problem persisted to Susan’s growing distress. Eventually her parents saw some of the vindictive emails, and belittling, taunting texts and voice messages.
What at first had seemed to be mildly worrying, soon developed into a major problem for Susan, and for all her family. All efforts to convince Anne to stop her harassment failed. Because the two women were in the same social environment, it was very hard for Susan to avoid meeting Anne, and even though she changed her mobile number several times, the threatening texts soon resumed. Susan developed problems sleeping, experienced violent dreams and was often tearful. Her mental health suffered to such an extent that she was advised to see a psychiatrist.
Susan has been under the care of a psychiatrist for the past four years now. She has a significant medication regime, with inevitable side effects. Susan’s independence and social life have been significantly curtailed. She no longer enjoys the social club where Anne also attends. Although Susan eventually resumed going to Special Olympics, almost her sole social outlet, she goes only when accompanied by one of her family. She is not confident to keep her mobile phone turned on and she uses her personal computer far less than previously. She is not keen to make new friends; bullying destroys trust in everyone and everything. There have, thankfully, been improvements over time. Her mother says Susan has regained her sense of humour and is slowing become less dependent. She has taken up knitting and is developing artistic talents.
The cyber bullying continues to take its toll on Susan’s parents and siblings as well. They have been involved all along the way and have given her great support. I spoke with one of her sisters who worries about Susan’s fragility, having been ‘knocked back’ so much that she will be too vulnerable to cope with any future traumas.
We celebrate the fact that people with intellectual disability are living much more ‘mainstream’ lives now. Many of them use mobile/smart phones and computers in their everyday lives. We have all heard the tragic stories of teenagers who have been unable to survive bullying at school or through social media. I can be even harder for individuals with disabilities to cope with such experiences, to process the pain and insults, and to explain their feelings to someone who can help. Susan’s family have shared their story in the hope of encouraging other families to become more aware of bullying and to listen for any early signs of such behaviour toward (or, indeed, by) their family member with intellectual disability.
It is vital too that disability services should be vigilant to the problem of bullying—especially less visible cyber bullying—which may occur among the people they support. We at Frontline would welcome a follow-up article from services who can offer anti-bullying policies and good practice guidelines in this important area.
Quotations from The National Institute of Intellectual Disability (NIID) Anti-bullying research project, Dublin: Trinity College 2012:
Bullying can have cumulative and devastating effects. Those who are the victims of bullying may feel embarrassed and humiliated. For people with intellectual disabilities who may already experience social isolation, bullying can severely undermine their self-confidence (Mencap, 1999). Victims of bullying may experience significantly high level of stress, live in fear of their perpetrator and can be driven out of their own communities (Mencap, 2007, 1999; Bramston, Fogarty & Cummins, 1998) (NIID, p.16)
More recently, social media has been identified as a new vehicle for bullying (Didden et al., 2009). Bullying via mobile phone is defined by the following actions; sending anonymous text messages, bullying via text messages, sending photos, films, and ‘bombs’ of text messages, ignoring calls and making frequent calls. Behaviours on the internet which may comprise bullying include ‘hurting, harassing, insulting, name calling, making fun of or ignoring’. Of these behaviours among students with intellectual disabilities, ignoring or making overly frequent calls and sending anonymous text messages were the most frequent forms of mobile phone bullying. Cyberbullying, which occurred less often than mobile phone bullying, took the form of posting malicious information about others, and sending anonymous emails (NIID, p.11).
The research also indicates a failure to implement existing anti-bullying policies (Hartas & Lindsay, 2011; Holzbauer, 2008; Sharp, 2001; Sheard et al., 2001) and a failure to follow up on disclosures of bullying (Mencap, 2007; National Autistic Society, 2006). This lack of implementation does little to encourage victims to disclose their situation. This is regrettable as, when asked, people with intellectual disability recommend ‘talking about it’ to a confident [sic] as a key strategy in combating bullying. They also recommend that ‘maybe by doing a role play of somebody getting bullied would help us understand better’ (Roscommon Advocacy Council, 2010: 9) (NIID, p.17-18).