Sunday Comment

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Erin Gallagher’s pretty picture has been in every national newspaper over the past week. I’m sure when she took the self styled profile shot, she made every effort to make sure she looked perfect, and she did. A youthful 13-year-old there was nothing out of place in the photo. Those of us who were, once, 13 year old girls know that it’s crucial to look perfect.

At that age, you spend every waking moment worrying about how the world sees you. Erin, I’m sure, was no different. We now know, too late, that it was what the world - or more specifically the online world - thought of her which tragically ended her life.

At 13, to put an end to the pain and torment she was dealing with at the hand of heartless bullies, the Ballybofey schoolgirl took her own life. It’s a tragedy beyond words for her distraught family who could do nothing to shield her from a dark cyberspace where teenagers are masked and fearless.

Erin had been taunted. A string of messages and posts on a teenage social networking site showed messages deliberately targeting the 13-year-old.

Her mother Lorraine, speaking publicly about the loss of her beautiful daughter, said the bullying had been happening for months and they had wanted Gardai to take action against the perpetrators but because of the online element, nothing could be done about it. Unfortunately on Saturday, after coming home from work, Lorraine found her daughter dead on the stairs.

That image makes me shudder. Your home, the place where you feel most relaxed and safe, is instantly turned into a horrific scene; your child, lifeless in your arms as you desperately ring for help. Most of should be thankful that we’ll never have first hand experience of what that mother went through.

As with all suicides, there are countless questions being asked. But in Erin’s case, unlike many others, the answers are there. We know why she did it. We know how desperate she was. Her young mind couldn’t possibly have realised the devastating impact her actions would have on those left behind but she was desperate, and she couldn’t see another way out.

Her death has prompted a flurry of concerns over teenagers’ use of the internet, and social networking and the potentially deadly dangers the web world poses.

But along with Erin’s death must come a bigger debate about life online.

Adults who stand back and wonder what went wrong in the life of this unfortunate teenager should also take a look at their own presence in the world of Facebook and Twitter.

An alarmingly high portion of the adult population seem to morph into something different online.

I’ve seen abrasive comments appear under postings on Facebook which would never, ever be said in a face to face conversation. It’s alter egos at the ready.

Twitter, predominantly a platform for adults as opposed to young teenagers, has hit the headlines in rows about sectarianism, racism and more.

Sectarianism and racism and bullying in general were around a long time before the dawn of the internet, but the mass popularity of having online social lives has raised more than a few questions about how easy it is for certain elements to hide. Even a tiny profile photo won’t stop most of these people whatever they like, feeling anonymous and secure in the knowledge that they remain at arms length tucked away in the privacy of their own home.

As we’ve seen in the past year, there are now ramifications if it goes what’s deemed “too far” on Twitter. There have been arrests, Precedents have been set. None of this helped Erin Gallagher.

Maybe, as adults, we’ve all become so accepting of the fact that this is just what teenagers do. They talk online, they put photos online, they have banter online. In the online world, teenagers do the same things as most fully grown adults. This must change.

The internet isn’t one size fits all. In those crucial, formative years, young people coping with issues around self esteem and identity are vulnerable, they’re prey for predators, but most importantly, they’re prey for one another in a land not as visible as the schoolyard.

It’s time to separate the kids from the grown-ups when it comes to the web. Both groups mingling in a blurry world where there are no lines drawn and countless places to hide, is a recipe for disaster, as Erin Gallagher’s death has tragically shown.