May 2007

Extreme cyberbullying: A mother's letter to the NZ Health Ministry

Karen and her teenage daughter, Sophie, live in New Zealand. This letter details the cyberbullying experience that led to Sophie's suicide attempt this spring, mentioned in the 6/1/07 issue of NetFamilyNews.

Karen asked me to use their real names, saying Sophie had made this request - possibly because they feel going public with their experience would contribute to Sophie's healing. I have deleted some place names to protect others' privacy. The name of the teenager who victimized Sophie has been changed to protect hers. I have left the name of the social-networking site where some of the cyberbullying occurred, but parents should know that all of the behavior related below could've happened on any of dozens of social sites based in a number of countries.

"Dear _______

"It was suggested I contact you with regard to a very serious issue that has arisen within my family. The issues involved, from both a personal and national level, are, I do believe, worth serious consideration. The story itself is almost like a script for a movie, but true. Before approaching yourself, I have tried to deal with this issue from every other angle - from Mental Health Services (Te Roopa Whangarei), the headmaster of T_______ High School, the police, the parents, the Web site in question - and have had limited success to date.

"As I know you are extremely busy, I will try to keep my story as brief as possible. May I warn you that the story is so bizarre, it takes a while to get your head around it!

"To introduce myself, my name is Karen ________. I live in T_______ with my three children, S______, 16, Sophie, 14, and S______, 11. We and their dad arrived in New Zealand from Zimbabwe in May/June of 2000. Since that time we have been struggling to form a new life in this beautiful country. The kids' dad, P________, is presently working for T_________ in Auckland, and I am self-employed. P________ and I are separated but yet have a good relationship.

"Sophie is in many ways the typical teenager and has coped well with her lot in life until now. She has not had the easiest of lives, having to face leaving her home, family, animals, and friends; as well as her parents' separation, along with the resultant trauma of settling into a new environment for herself. She is popular at school, receives average+ grades, and is an outstanding sportswoman in soccer, netball, swimming, and cricket. One of her hobbies, until now, has been the Internet and talking on social-networking sites like Bebo. Despite her achievements, she tends toward being a bit shy at first, not always one to open up easily and keeps many of her emotions to herself and is often reluctant to talk openly about serious issues. She has a kind heart and has empathy for the underdog.

"On Saturday, January 13, a young girl by the name of Aliesha Dempster was tragically killed in a car accident due to reckless driving. She was sixteen years old. Aliesha went to the same school as Sophie (W_________ Girl's High) and was a good friend of Sebastian's and had spent a night in our home a while ago. The affect of Aliesha's death on the youth and the parents of [our community] was devastating and the resultant funeral heart-wrenching. I, as a mum, took Sebastian to his first funeral on Thurs., 18 January. Sophie did not want to go.

"Prior to this event, our small community in Tutukaka has had to deal with the tragic loss of life of two other young children, over a very short space of time; one by another car accident and another by suicide. My children knew both these people. In addition to this, my children were also aware that my business partner's brother had died due to suicide by jumping in front of a train in England two years ago.

"On 30 January, 2007, I went to pick Sophie up in Dargaville. She had spent a few days in Auckland with her dad and was en route home via visiting her then-boyfriend, Chris. On the drive home to T________, she seemed very upset and fidgety. Asking her what the matter was, she told me that a friend had died, having comitted suicide. This is what she told me then:

"...that she had this friend Ben, whom she had met on the Internet, via Bebo and MSN, and that a few nights before he had been texting her, telling her that he was going to die as he had taken an overdose of pills and that his friend, Nancy, who was staying with him, was supposed to be joining him as part of a suicide pact they had made. He asked Sophie, to please look after Nancy after he had gone (this fact I only found out much later).

"Sophie was obviously desperate and was furiously trying to call him and text him, telling not to do it ... to no avail. Nancy was apparently sleeping in the room next door and could not be contacted by Sophie in her bid to save Ben. Sophie had met Nancy at school a little while before Ben appeared on the Net. Nancy woke up the next morning, dialled 111, and Ben was whisked off to hospital. His parents flew out from Scotland to switch his life support system off and took his body back to Scotland.

"On asking Sophie more about this boy, she proceeded to tell me that he had suffered from depression, partly because he had witnessed a previous girlfriend hang herself, and that Nancy had swallowed razor blades a few months before. He was from Scotland, had very wealthy parents and was staying in their house in Orewa whislt over here modeling and surfing.

"This was Sophie's reality.

"I now had two chidren who had to deal with death on a personal level within two weeks of each other. Sebastian was coping, but Sophie not.

"From that time, until April 17, when the whole mystery unravelled itself, Sophie proceeded to change. She became reclusive and moody and did not seem to be able to find a point of recovery as Sebastian had done. It became more and more evident that she was under a tremendous strain. As much as I tried to get her to open up, she had very little to say, becoming more and more closed and for the most part refused to enter into any dialogue as to what was happening in her life.

"Sophie and Nancy contacted each other constantly by text during this time. This matter concerned me greatly as I saw Nancy as being a person who was depressed, was constantly threatening to kill herself to Sophie via txt, and had apparently been in hospital twice since January for attempted suicide, had been cutting herself constantly, and was generally not in a good way. (On the first occasion of her visit to hospital, Sophie started receiving txts from Nancy's friend Shea, saying it was Sophie's fault for Nancy's condition and that he was going to kill her.)

"I was told that her parents did not want anything to do with Nancy and that she was living with some other kids in a garage so did not try to speak to any member of her family at that time. Nevertheless, I found myself not knowing what to do to help Sophie get through this.

"I now have letters in my possession from Nancy to Sophie, full of stories and emotive writings about Ben and the suicide pact they had - all this constantly fuelling Sophie's grief and stress and feelings of guilt, etc. Shphie's boyfriend, Justin, and I were very, very worried about her, and we both tried to persuade her to go and see someone to talk to in order for her to try and deal with what she had been through, which she eventually did. After consultation, the basic concensus here was that Sophie, even though depressed and grieving, was not suicidal.

"Many other small incidents happened at this time, but suffice to say at this point in time, Sophie was suffering from extreme stress, evident in the fact that she was always hurting herself in silly and easily avoidable accidents.

"In order to try and stem the flow of text messagess between these two girls (which I discovered later were all about Ben and Nancy's friendship), I tried to take Sophie away to places where there was no cell coverage. Not a solution, but at least a respite. At some stage, Sophie had used up all her credit, so Nancy leant her the very phone that had belonged to Ben - the one that was used the night he took the pills.

"On Wednesday, March 28, Sophie took an overdose of pills, drank Janola and ended up in hospital for attempted suicide. She did not die or do any permanent physical damage only because the drugs I had in my house had low paracetemol levels. We were very lucky. Nancy had told her the day before how much Ben had liked Sophie and on Wednesday, after having an argument with Justin, Sophie did what she did.

"Nancy was present at the hospital, not showing much emotion, but there, giving Sophie flowers and being her best friend.

"Needless to say, this incident has rocked our world and I'm still rocking!! Sophie had to go for assessment [at the mental health center] and the findings were that she was suffering from extreme grief and that she did not have a mental health issue. This was the only time they have seen her.

"After this event, the two girls were even more thick and, at times, the texting went way on into the night. Nancy came to spend a night over Easter (April 8) and though not very talative, seemed to be quite calm (I had met her briefly on a few other occasions prior to this but very briefly). She and Sophie seemed to be fine, and a pleasant time was had.

"On April 10, on accessing my telephone messages, I was surprised to have a message from Nancy's mum, who was making enquiries as to the validity of Nancy's stay over Easter. Seizing the opportunity, I called her back. She said that Sophie seemed to be a very good friend to Nancy. I mentioned Sophie's attempt and proceeded to ask how she was coping after Nancy's last visit to hospital. She did not know what I was talking about. On asking Sophie about this, she said that Nancy does not live with her mum, who did not know everything about Nancy's life.

"The alarm bells were starting to get louder and louder for me at this point. Something was not right, but what?

"However, at this stage, Sophie asked me if she could go up to Ahipara with Nancy to go to Ben's favourite beach. After much discussion, I said that the only way for her to go up was for me to take her. I was not content to have her drive with what I saw at this stage as an emotionally depressed person who was in danger herself. This we did on Monday, April 16. My only reasoning in this venture was to try and give Sophie an opportunity to get closure on the whole Ben saga. On observing these two girls together that day, I got the distinct feeling that all was not right. Nancy just looked too happy, the jigsaw pieces were not fitting.

"On my arrival home that evening, there was yet another message from Nancy's mum. On returning her call, she said she felt the need to speak to me because she felt that Nancy was dangerous for Sophie. I needed to find out why. We agreed to meet the following day, which we did.

"At our meeting, I told her my story about Ben, Sophie, and Nancy. It was at this point when the realisation dawned that this boy Ben had never existed and that he was a figment and creation of Nancy's imagination. The last time Nancy was in hospital for any form of attempted self-harm was seventeen months ago. She was lying and had made the whole thing up, including her own attempts at hurting herself.

"Having made this awful discovery, both Nancy's mum and I requested a group meeting under the supervision of [the mental health center], as both girls were patients. Our request was not granted saying that we must sort this out as parents. The upshot of this is that Nancy's mum has been denied access to her daughter and, though would love to help, can't; Nancy's dad denies all, slammed the phone down in my ear, and we have had no contact since.

"On Wednesday 18 April, I gathered together a group of people including Sophie's dad, who drove up from Auckland, close adult friends, Justin, and Sophie's best friend from this area and proceeded to tell her the truth. A shock? Yes, but after a little while, she began to see the logic and saw what we were saying was the truth. Ben was fake. All Nancy's stories were fake. No-one had died. There was no one to grieve. She had been the pawn in a very nasty, cruel game.

"Now this is Sophie's reality.

"Now that the truth was out, I proceeded to log onto Bebo myself, to find the proof of the non-existence of Ben, in order to have both his original site and his R.I.P. site that had been posted onto Bebo, removed. It has become very clear to me, that - though Sophie was somehow made a special target by Nancy - there are countless children out there who have been affected by this Ben, many of whom I do believe are vulnerable. Ben's sites have been removed, but I am still trying to have Nancy's sites removed, because this is where the damage is originating from and from where the cyberabuse continues.

"It is here that I have found that Nancy was not alone in her creation of Ben but assisted by her best friend from school, Shea, a boy of 16 who is also a patient of [the mental health center]. Hence the txt that he sent Sophie, mentioned earlier. Shea had created Ben's profile on Bebo, but Nancy used it as a tool to make this boy seem real.

"This experience has been most disturbing, especially in view of the very delicate nature of the topic suicide.

"I will be sending you two more separate e-mails giving a visual image of Nancy's active site (she has five different profiles on Bebo), as well as the Teen Suicide page that Nancy's roommate Hailey has made - and stuck among all the photos of real people who have died, who do you still find staring from the screen? 'Ben.'

"I do not know what these kids are playing at.

"These sorts of pages are being made by the very children we are seeking to protect teenagers. There are no media guidelines here. It's a free-for-all. My question is, how are we as a society going to pick up the pieces?


"Thank you for taking time to read this letter. I do not know where to go from here. All I know is that I look forward to finding some resolution for Sophie. Surely it is her right as a child and as a human being?

"I would be happy to answer any questions and, should the need arise, would be happy to show someone the evidence to corroborate my accusations.

"Thanking you,

"Karen _______ "

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