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Wednesday, May 07, 2014 

It gets better, despite the scaremongering.

The case of Hannah Smith is as desperately tragic as they come. The 14-year-old killed herself in August last year, writing a note found by her father asking whether her life was ever going to get any better. Her family say she had been bullied for up to three years, her personality changing markedly after going to a party where she was assaulted, her head twice hit against a wall. She became more insular and introverted, and as the inquest into her death heard, told friends on Facebook she was thinking of ending her life.

As terrible as every teenage suicide is, with the taboos around depression and mental illness still making it an exceptionally difficult topic to broach, in spite of the increased recognition of how many young people do struggle during what is already a difficult period of their lives, Smith's death wouldn't have become national news had it not been blamed in part on cyber-bullying. Coming just after the storm of media interest in the abuse meted out on Twitter to Caroline Criado-Perez and others involved in the Jane Austen banknote campaign, it looked another example of the dark side of the internet and the misuse of online anonymity by those without a care for others and no sense of responsibility.

Only as has now been confirmed at the inquest and was claimed by Ask.fm's owners within days of the story becoming front page news, the messages left on her page were not from bullies, but written by Hannah herself.  Giving evidence, investigating officer Wayne Simmons said the messages had originated from the same IP address as Hannah's, and also ruled out that the could have been spoofed.  On the balance of probabilities, she had resorted to a relatively new form of self-harm - attacking herself via different accounts, whether in an attempt to garner sympathy from friends and get them to defend her, or as just another representation of the self-loathing she felt.

The tabloids, and indeed, the prime minister, were not to know this had been the case.  Nonetheless, putting all of the blame onto Ask.fm and by turn social networking as they did, with calls for the site to be shut down and David Cameron supporting a boycott, was precisely the kind of response that hinders rather than helps with understanding how the way teenagers live has changed so radically in a little over a decade.  Cyber-bullying is certainly a problem - I for one am beyond thankful I left school behind just before the inexorable rise of social media, when the main hangout was MSN Messenger rather than sites like Ask.  Anonymous trolling or bullying by those not personally known to the victim is however very much a rarity, compared to the online continuation of torment by schoolmates, something that can make it seem as though there is absolutely no escape from your own personal hell.

This emphasis on the medium rather than message and on one specific factor as the overriding cause is to ignore most of what we know about depression and mental illness.  At times there can be one underlying reason - be it bullying, general unhappiness with life, the end of a relationship, the death of a relative or friend, but often it's a culmination of a number of things.  There are also usually warning signs, in Hannah's case both physical and mental self-harm, as well as talking about suicide.  Even if it were possible, shutting down somewhere like Ask would only result in another such site popping up in its place.  Understandable as it is to want to try and control these new apparent threats, it's just as undesirable and overbearing as doing the equivalent of wrapping children in cotton wool.

The danger is in overreaction, curtailing something that has given traditional outsiders or those being bullied precisely because they are "different" a refuge, a place where they can be reassured their interests or sexuality are not weird or character flaws.  For every teenager whose death has been blamed in some way on the internet, whether rightly or wrongly, there are hundreds of thousands, almost certainly millions whose lives have been transformed or made worth continuing with thanks to making new friends through social media or otherwise.  Without wanting to turn this into old versus new media, that's something the newspapers, always searching for the next passing frenzy, have to be forced if necessary to recognise.

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