Warning comes after inquest finds 15-year-old killed herself hours after receiving threats on a social networking site
Natasha MacBryde was found dead on a railway 150 yards from her home after suffering ‘awful and unacceptable’ online bullying. Photograph: PA
Charities have warned of an increase in cyberbullying after an inquest this week disclosed that a teenage girl killed herself in February just hours after receiving an abusive and threatening message on a social networking site.
Jeremy Todd, chief executive of the charity Family Lives, said the online bullying of Natasha MacBryde was “awful and unacceptable”. The 15-year-old was found dead on a railway 150 yards from her home in Bromsgrove in Worcestershire. On Thursday a coroner called internet “trolls” who left abusive messages on an online memorial page to the teenager “vile and disgusting”.
“Cyberbullying is on the increase,” said Todd. “Parents are way behind their children in terms of keeping up with the technology used. When you can see what has happened to this teenager we can see that this is incredibly dangerous.”
“Trolling” – the act of deliberately leaving abusive and bullying comments on social networking profiles – was on the rise and children needed to be better policed by parents and social networking sites, he said.
Since January 2009 the charity has seen calls to its bullying helpline increase by 13% and calls about cyberbullying soar by 77%. Todd called for an investigation into the practices of the social networking site Formspring, based in the US, which allows users to post questions or comments anonymously, and where the comments about Natasha were made. “The notion of anonymity on these websites needs to be challenged, because there can be tragic consequences,” he said.
In an inquest into the teenager’s death, coroner Geraint Williams described how, within a week of her suicide, bullies targeted a tribute Facebook page, made jokes about Natasha’s death and called her a “whore”. One of the perpetrators had been caught and prosecuted, he said.
The inquest heard that hours before her death, Natasha – a pupil at the private Royal Grammar School in Worcester – had been sent a message which called her a “slut hiding under all your makeup. Start acting nice to people or you will lose everyone. Mark my words.”
Her mother, Jane MacBryde, told the inquest that her daughter had been bullied by a clique of girls at her school who called themselves “The Ten”. She died of multiple injuries after she walked on to a train line and was hit by a train north of Bromsgrove station. The inquest recorded a verdict of suicide.
Richard Piggin, deputy chief executive at the anti-bullying charity Beatbullying – which has received 1.2m calls to its CyberMentors website since it was launched in 2009 – said new technology, including GPS features on sites such as Facebook that could inform bullies of the exact whereabouts of their victim, could be dangerous and made it very difficult to escape bullies. “In the past if you were bullied at school you could find sanctuary at home, but now bullying can happen 24 hours a day, on your mobile and social networking sites. If you are on your own in your bedroom at night, how can you escape?”
According to the charity, 30% of 11- to 16-year-olds have been cyberbullied. The anonymity and distance of the internet also made victims vulnerable to bullying from greater numbers of peers while making it easier for bullies to behave more viciously than they might in “real life”, said Piggin. “There is a perception that you can get away with it online. Bullies don’t see the immediate consquences and can pretend it is just a joke.”
Formspring has also linked to the suicide of a 17-year-old American student, Alexis Pilkington, and 15-year-old Phoebe Prince, who was bullied on Twitter, Craigslist and Facebook.
Websites such as Formspring and LittleGossip.com should scrap anonymity, said Piggin. “We need to see increased moderation from social networks and independent regulation of this sector,” he added.
Formspring says users can block anonymous questions. “The hidden identity feature should never be used to ask questions that are mean or hurtful,” it states. The company did not immediately respond to requests for an interview, but instead issued a statement: “Formspring extends its deepest sympathy to Natasha MacBryde’s family and loved ones. We are committed to the safety of our users and have reached out to law enforcement to provide any assistance we can in their ongoing inquest.”