*The teenagers interviewed in this story have chosen to remain anonymous.
All images used are stock images, via Getty.
"Every afternoon, I was going home from school and trying to get away from it, but it would just continue."
"I really felt that no one liked me and I didn’t have any friends."
When we think about online bullying, we often think about trolls and "keyboard warriors" in the comments section on Facebook and Instagram.
But for teenage girls, online bullying has evolved to become something far more covert and insidious.
Unlike years gone by, the introduction of direct messaging on social media as well as the ever-growing list of new social media platforms, such as TikTok and Snapchat, has meant that online bullying has become more hidden than ever before.
More than ever, online bullying among teenage girls is now occurring in private spaces online – from group chats to direct messages and even on private Instagram accounts.
According to headspace, more than half of young Australians (53 per cent) have experienced cyber bullying.
As per the eSafety Commissioner, examples of cyber bullying can include abusive messages, imitating others online, humiliating others online, excluding others online, and creating fake accounts to trick someone or humiliate them.
In the hopes of shining a light on the often covert bullying tactics used online, we spoke to three young women about their experiences. Here's what they had to say.
For *Natasha, her experience of bullying began in Year Four, when a girl within her friendship group began targeting her at school.
"It was mainly the one person that controlled it all," Natasha, who is now in Year Nine, told Mamamia.
"She kind of took my friends away. She was more popular than me, so she kind of manipulated people to not hang out with me."
Shortly after starting her high school years, Natasha and her friends joined a number of social media platforms, including Snapchat and Instagram. Suddenly, Natasha, then 13 years old, had no escape from her bully.
"That's when it started getting worse, because she had another way of doing it," Natasha shared.
Predominantly, the bullying Natasha experienced occurred on Snapchat.
As of April 2020, the app, which allows users to communicate through messages that expire after 24 hours, has more than 6.4 million monthly active Australian users.
While the popular app was designed for confidential direct messaging between friends, it has become a significant source of online bullying.
For instance, the app's messaging function, which notifies users when their messages are screenshotted, makes it difficult for victims of bullying to keep a record of evidence.
"These apps [such as Snapchat and TikTok] have given young people new opportunities to keep in touch with friends and family," Jessie Mitchell, Senior Advisor, Bullying at the Alannah & Madeleine Foundation – a charity aimed at keeping children safe from violence and abuse – told Mamamia.
"Unfortunately, they also provide new opportunities for bullying, especially through messaging and comments."
On one occasion, Natasha's bully added her to a group chat on Snapchat, which she had named: "All the people that hate Natasha".
"She added all of my friends [to the group chat] and none of them had told me that they hated me or anything. But it still makes you feel like it's true," she said.
"Every afternoon, I was going home from school and trying to get away from it, but it would just continue. I really felt that no one liked me and I didn’t have any friends."
While a number of Natasha's friends were in the group chat, none of the girls responded to the bully's messages.
"She had a lot of power at the school. Nobody, I guess, was brave enough to stand up to her."
As the bullying continued, Natasha began to feel incredibly anxious about attending school.
"It led to me not being able to sleep because I was so worried about waking up and going to school," she recalled.
"I’d get up and I wouldn’t want to go to school. I was tired all day. I wasn’t enjoying school at all because I would just sit in the bathrooms during the breaks. I didn’t have a social life at all."
While in Year Eight, Natasha eventually got to the point where she felt that leaving the school was her only option.
But instead of changing schools, she transitioned to an online schooling program.
"I can finally focus more on myself and getting my work done rather than worrying about what will happen at lunch time, and not wanting to go to school."
*Rebecca's daughter, *Alana started getting bullied initially in primary school.
On one occasion, Alana was hit with sticks in the playground.
Another time, her bullies confronted her at her own home.
"She was going out to ride her bike one day and I could hear her out the front crying and yelling out for me," Rebecca recalled.
"Two girls from her school had come around – because one of the bullies lived around the corner – and they were stepping on Alana at the front door."
Eventually, Alana became such a target at school that she soon transitioned to homeschooling.
But despite continuing her schooling online, Alana, who has autism and an intellectual disability, began being targeted by bullies online.
"She had a couple of friends on social media who weren’t very nice people," Rebecca recalled.
"They were getting other people that Alana didn’t even know and getting them to bully her on social media."
While Alana wasn't allowed on Facebook at the time, she was using musical.ly – a social media app which allows users to create and share short lip-sync videos. As of 2018, the app merged into TikTok, a video-sharing app which continues to grow in popularity.
On musical.ly, Alana began receiving abusive and even threatening messages.
The following text conversation has been dramatised.
In one instance, Rebecca decided to confront one of the online bullies.
"She was getting bullied by a girl on social media. I ended up ringing her mother and telling her, 'This needs to stop'," she recalled.
"She said to me, 'Oh no, she doesn’t have social media at all. I don’t know what you’re talking about.' And I told her, 'Well, I'm standing with Alana's iPad right now and she's sending messages through.'"
"Watching your child go through it, it is absolutely devastating.
"You have a child that’s falling to pieces, is questioning their own values, their self worth, and even if they’re a decent human being. It can tear a child apart to the point of no recovery."
Alana, who is now 16, currently uses both Facebook and Instagram.
"Her Facebook and Instagram accounts are monitored by her older siblings. So as soon as a message or conversation comes in, they’re alerted," Rebecca said.
"I think that parents need to do the same so that they’re aware of what’s coming in on their child’s social media account."
"Parents need to be on it. Don’t wait to see if your child gets bullied, you have to talk to them about what they need to do if they are bullied now. They need to be prepared for what’s ahead. Because when they’re not prepared, they don’t know what to do. And that's when they fall apart."
*Sarah's experience with bullying began when she first started high school.
"In Year Seven and Eight, I had a lot of issues with girls at school. It was more or less that they were rude towards me because they had more money, or other small petty things like that," Sarah told Mamamia.
"It just became so full on sometimes."
Eventually, Sarah ended up moving schools entirely to escape the bullying.
But while the 17-year-old has had a much better experience at her current school, she has faced bullying online.
As mentioned earlier, group chats among teenage girls can often become a place for insidious bullying.
From Facebook Messenger to even Snapchat group messages, a victim may be purposefully excluded, harassed, or trolled within a private conversation.
"For me personally, it would happen on Instagram," Sarah told Mamamia.
"It was mostly in group chats. I'd be in a group chat [with a few girls], and there would be three of them coming against me. Just spitting all of this stuff."
On another occasion, a video of Sarah was shared without her consent on another girl's "private" Instagram account.
As The Conversation reported, many teenagers use private Instagram accounts, often referred to as "privates", "finstas" or "spam accounts" to share content that they wouldn't normally share on their "main" Instagram account.
Although "privates" are predominately used to share memes and "ugly" selfies, there have been some reports of teenagers using the extra anonymity of the "finsta" to cyber bully others.
This was the case for Sarah.
"There was an incident that happened at school where someone got a finger bun and chucked it at my head," she recalled.
"They got a video of it and posted it on their private Instagram account for 200 or 300 people to see. All of the comments were of people laughing at me."
While private accounts on Instagram can often have a bad reputation, Sarah believes that Snapchat "definitely takes the cake for online bullying".
One particular function within Snapchat, called 'YOLO', allows users to share anonymous questions and comments on a user’s Snapchat story.
Although Sarah is only friends with people she "gets along with" on Snapchat, she received a number of abusive comments when using the anonymous YOLO feature within the app.
"They were saying things like, 'You're so snobby, you walk around like you've got something stuck up your arse,'" she said.
"They were full on but I kind of found it funny because they were obviously trolls. But if it wasn't me, I think it would really affect someone quite negatively."
The Year 12 student has also seen other users posting abusive messages on Snapchat. Much like Instagram Stories, the app allows users to share images to their story, which then disappears after 24 hours.
"If someone is having an argument with someone else, they'll post screenshots of the whole [private] conversation and call them really rude names on Snapchat," she said.
On platforms including Snapchat and Instagram, bullies often use anonymity to their advantage.
"People can create multiple anonymous accounts across different platforms in order to bully others, making it very difficult for the victim to find out who’s responsible," Jessie Mitchell explained.
Getting help and advice for parents.
When teenagers are struggling with online bullying, they can often be apprehensive about reaching out for help.
Paediatric psychologist and founder of Northern & Hawthorn Centres for Child Development, Amanda Abel, outlined some of the emotional changes that parents can look out for as signs that their teen may be getting bullied.
"The really obvious signs are that they tend to become withdrawn and their self esteem will often decrease because they can start to believe what the bullies might be saying to them," Amanda shared.
"They also may start to feel anxious about going to school."
Amanda, who often sees teenagers struggling with bullying, shared some of the ways teenagers can arm themselves against online bullies.
"One of the things that we always encourage is having really strong friendships. We know especially with teenage girls in that age bracket that having friendships is a really protective factor against a lot of things including online bullying," she said.
"A lot of the time, friends can actually be bystanders to online bullying. Teens can make an agreement with friends to stand up for each other in the case of bullying.
"If [a teenager] is already prone to anxiety or depression, getting someone to help them through that can also be quite helpful because then if a bully makes comments towards them, they already have the strategies that they can put in place.
"The other thing that we will always go through is problem solving. If kids are good at problem solving, they’re going to know what to do if online bullying comes up."
Jessie Mitchell, Senior Advisor, Bullying at the Alannah & Madeleine Foundation, also shared how teenagers can approach finding help if they're being bullied.
"If you’ve been bullied online, we recommend reaching out to a trusted adult, such as a parent, teacher or a mental health professional," she shared.
"Consider it might help to block or mute the person who’s bullying you. Cyber bullying can also be reported to the website where it occurred and to the eSafety Commissioner who has powers to have serious bullying activities removed.
There are practical steps parents can take as well to protect their children.
"I think it’s so important for parents to be educated about the online world," Amanda Abel told Mamamia.
"[They need to] understand that, to teenagers, their world is the online world. It’s not two distinct worlds like it is for those of us that are a little older."
One option available to parents is the Optus Family Plan, which bundles four SIMS into one plan with 250GB of monthly data to share.
The plan includes a subscription to the McAfee Safe Family app as well as access to a bunch of helpful online materials around cyber safety, internet usage, and even information on safe TikTok use.
Paediatric psychologist Amanda also recommended starting conversations about online bullying early.
"With all of these sort of big issues, we always say that these conversations need to be constant and be started when kids are young," she told Mamamia.
"It’s also important to listen to your child when they’ve got something to say to you. Regardless of how trivial you think it seems, they need to know that you’re going to take them seriously with the little stuff, so they know that they will be taken seriously when they’ve got a big problem and they’ll be comfortable bringing that to you."
If you, or a young person you know, is struggling with symptoms of mental illness please contact your local headspace centre here or chat to them online, here. If you are over the age of 25 and suffering from symptoms of mental illness please contact your local GP for a Mental Health Assessment Plan or call Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.
Kid's Helpline is also available on 1800 551 800.