It was an after-school scene that played out repeatedly for 14-year-old Leah Jones. She’d be sitting in her Woodstock, New Brunswick, home, and her phone would light up. The swirl of pink, purple and orange hues that make up the Instagram logo would appear across the screen as the app informed her that someone had commented on one of her recent posts. Her heart would sink.
The comment wasn’t a nice note from her best friend or a compliment from a relative—Leah, like millions of other young Canadians, was being cyberbullied.
Throughout the start of her first year of high school, Leah’s Instagram page was the target of hurtful comments from acquaintances and former friends: name calling, put-downs and what she describes as “words I probably shouldn’t say” filled the space below otherwise happy photos.
“Obviously none of those things would be said to your face because everything is masked online. But it still hurts. It still sucks and puts a dent in your day,” she says. “I find it’s actually normal. And that’s what’s unfortunate. A lot of teens do [experience cyberbullying], especially girls, because you’re attacked emotionally.”
Nearly one in five Internet-using Canadians aged 15 to 29 report having been cyberbullied or cyberstalked, according to a Statistics Canada study released in 2016. Eight hundred and fifty-five people in Woodstock fall within that age group according to the 2016 census.
“It’s very scarring for young teenagers and pre-teens that are just trying to get themselves out there,” she says. “You’re just trying to make friends and you’re put down so much on social media that it feels impossible for you to take a stand.”
Leah is far from alone in her experience. But it is her strength and resilience in the face of bullying that make her stand out.
Sitting in the dining hall of ME to WE’s Take Action Camp in Bethany, Ontario, on a warm July afternoon in 2018, Leah, now 15, is beaming. Freckles scatter her sun-kissed face, making her deep blue eyes even more striking. It has been almost a year since the cyberbullying began; the comments have tapered off (“people got bored and moved on”) and she has developed a new perspective on the world and on her experience with cyberbullying. Her two summers at camp have given her the confidence to stand up when she sees someone being bullied.
“[Take Action Camp] changed my life,” she says. “When I came to camp it was kind of a tough time. I wasn’t at my greatest point. But seeing how everyone had similar experiences and finding something I’m passionate about, it really helped me to see that there are so many more things in life than worrying about a couple of comments online.”
With the knowledge she gained from a mental well-being workshop that she participated in at camp this summer, Leah is now able to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of mental illnesses, like anxiety and depression, that can result from cyberbullying. She knows how to provide her friends with support should they need it, and what organizations to turn to for help.
Leah credits a strong support network of close friends and family with helping her maintain positive mental health; time and talking to loved ones proved to be the cyberbullying cure. Now, when she sees a rude comment on a photo, she calls out the bully and reports the comment. When her friends are faced with nasty remarks, Leah lends an ear.
While she has had her fair share of negative experiences with social media, she still sees its positives. Platforms like Snapchat, Instagram and Facebook have allowed her to stay in contact with the friends she has made at camp. She is able to regularly check in on their well-being, no matter where they are in the world. This is what she calls the “great aspect of social media.”
As she begins grade 10 at Woodstock High School, Leah hopes to bring discussions about cyberbullying and mental health into the classroom. While cyberbullying is acknowledged in schools, she believes that deeper, more meaningful conversations are required in order to help its victims and stop its perpetrators.
Believing that many voices are stronger than one, she plans to gather her friends who have had similar experiences and, together, raise the issue to their teachers and school principal. Her hope is that he will bring the idea to the school district, and that change will be implemented from the top down.
“Cyberbullying is a cause that I want to do something about because it hits so close to home,” says Leah. “It’s destroying people’s minds and it’s wrecking their emotional stability because of what people say and how people act. And it needs to stop. Somebody needs to sit down and have a real conversation.”
Learn more about how you can help put an end to cyberbullying through the WE Rise Above Campaign.
For information on mental health resources and support in your community, visit the Canadian Mental Health Association.