Ellie Nudd was a typical teenager, studying for A-levels in English, sociology and business in her hometown of Colchester. Now aged 21, she describes her younger self as “open and trusting”, someone who found it easy to make friends.
Soon after joining the social networking site Formspring at the age of 17, she recalls, all that changed: “At the time, it was the latest site; everyone at my school had it. It was one of those sites where you can make your profile public or private, and comments can be made anonymously or you can leave your name.”
She made a profile, which anyone could see. It was, she says, the start of a period of bullying that would scar her life for ever. “In the beginning, it was comments about my appearance. These were public comments that everyone could see: they wrote about how I looked, where I worked. They knew what car I drove, they knew everything about me.”
The scariest part, she reflects four years later, was “this was clearly [being done by] someone I knew, but I knew nothing about them”.
Video: 'The landscape of bullying has completely changed'
With the anonymity the site gave her abuser or abusers, Ellie had no way of knowing if it was a so-called friend or people she worked with. “It could have been anyone; it was obvious it was someone I was seeing every day.”
Over a period of months, Ellie adds, “it escalated to death threats. Towards the end, the messages were very aggressive and personal. They were kind of stalkerish too, pointing to other comments I’d made on a different networking site, or for instance if I drove over a bridge one day they would write, ‘Next time you cross that bridge, you’re going to crash.’ ”
The impact on her life was devastating. “It followed me everywhere. I’m not saying [online bullying] is worse than any other kind of bullying, but if you’re being bullied face to face, you can at least get away from it at home.”
At the time, Ellie was “too embarrassed” to tell her family what was happening. “It sounds silly, but I felt like I must have done something wrong to deserve it. It is hard to say to someone, ‘I’m being bullied and I need help.’
“I didn’t tell my family for a long time, but my friends obviously saw the comments with their own eyes. It was difficult for them; at first, they would say ‘it’s just words’. But it’s not as simple as that. That was the most frustrating thing that everyone around me didn’t seem to understand.”
Ellie says the whole time this was going on she never engaged with the bullies, and yet they carried on. Why did she not just stop looking at the comments? Or leave the site altogether? “Because it was a public site, others could still see the messages being left. I had to keep looking at the site, I couldn’t stop. To tell a 17-year-old to stop using a social network, it’s not going to happen. For me, it was impossible. Weird as it sounds, I wanted to see it. Everyone else could read it; I wanted to see it, too.”
The reverberations of the abuse, Ellie recalls, were widely felt: “It really affected my concentration; there were times in class when I was very emotional and couldn’t focus. I couldn’t trust anyone.” She felt “frustrated” and “angry” that these people thought they could harass her with total impunity. “They knew they could get away with it.”
Finally, after several months of fearing for her life, Ellie went to the police. “They took over my profile, and for my own wellbeing they told me to stop using the site. Since then my account has been shut down.” Yet the police were never able to find out who was responsible. “In the site’s terms and conditions, it said [the owners] would release the names [of anyone making salacious comments], but because it was a foreign company [who owned the site], the British police couldn’t get any response from them.”
Even now, Ellie says, not knowing who was behind the cyberbullying “still influences the way I look at the world and how I view new people who come into my life”.
“Four years ago, I was very open to meeting new people, and I found it easy to talk to people and get to know them. Now I’m very closed off and guarded. I’ve got a very close circle of people around me, but I find it hard to trust and open up to new people.”
Ellie has just finished a degree in criminology and is about to start her master’s. She still uses social networking sites, but has learnt to keep them “really private”.
“Now I know exactly who is in my network. It is not something you ever really get over. It takes only seconds to type something on a computer, but for those on the other side it sticks with you for the rest of your life.”