How a WhatsApp game turned into cyberbullying

29 NOVEMBER 2018

Abuse and exploitation are growing issues in the online space. Vanessa*, 13, from Honduras found this out the hard way, but her experience led to bullying and online safety training for the young people at her school.

A young person using WhatsApp on their smartphone.
A young person using WhatsApp on their smartphone.

In Honduras, at least two children in every school classroom are subject to some form of online abuse. Earlier this year, 13-year old Vanessa* from Honduras, was gifted a tablet by her parents as a reward for her high school grades. She used it for research, updating her Facebook profile and to chat to her friends on WhatsApp. 

Three months ago, while using WhatsApp, she was added to a group chat with a group of children from her school to play a game of “dare”. Everyone was asked to post a random number and given a corresponding challenge which they had to complete. 

Vanessa was asked to upload half-naked photos to the group. 

She felt she had no other option, because not completing her dare would be have meant losing her friends. Soon after uploading the pictures, her mother discovered the photos on the tablet and banned her from using it again.
For a few weeks everything seemed okay, but one day at school things began to change.

Online exploitation a growing issue

Some of her classmates stopped talking to her, others wouldn’t look at her or pointed at her and laughed. One of them called her a name, and it dawned on her that the photos had been spread online. 

As the day progressed, things worsened. 

During break time, she discovered that one of her classmates had printed her photos and was selling them to other children for 80 cents. Kids were laughing. The pictures began circulating on social media, going beyond her school. She saw mocking memes of herself, people calling her all kinds of names. 

She was filled with emotions, from betrayal to shame, guilt to sadness. As she looked at her phone on her way back home from school, she could see grown men were posting sexual comments about her online. 
When Vanessa got home she broke down in tears and told her mother everything. She was terrified of going back to school. 

She couldn’t sleep. She wasn’t hungry. Thoughts that shouldn’t run through anybody’s mind became the only thing she could think of: “What is going to happen to my life now? What do I do, where do I go? Is life worth living if it’s going to be like this? What would happen if I died, would they stop talking about me?”

Girls and young women must be free to use technology without abuse

In response, Vanessa’s mother stood up to defend her daughter. She directed her concerns to the school directors and demanded a solution. 

The students pledged to support each other and stop bullying

Plan International learnt about the situation and, having previously run campaigns on cyberbullying in Honduras, Vanessa’s case was dealt with by those with experience.

Vanessa was given one-to-one counselling to help her cope with the emotional turmoil she felt and learn how to deal with the cyberbullying she was experiencing. She was also encouraged to not give up on her education.
At her school, Plan International ran a two month long awareness-raising campaign to challenge attitudes and behaviours that enabled the bullying culture Vanessa faced.

We must teach young people to support eachother on and offline

The students were encouraged to get involved in workshops, walks, roleplay exercises and debates. The students pledged to support each other and stop bullying though a peace building mural painted in bright colours on the school wall where everyone can see it.

Parents were also invited to teaching sessions to learn how to identify the emotional signals that indicate that their children could be subject to abuse and given information on who to approach for help.

Now the students lead peer-to-peer training sessions at their school to teach each other about the negative consequences of both bullying and cyberbullying. 

Vanessa is back at school. She’s made new friends and is more informed than ever about online harassment and abuse. In her own words, “I still occasionally hear passing comments from people, but I keep my head up. I make a difference with my voice.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity

Education, Technology for development