Checking The Mail: Mail Online Talking About Toxicity Online Is Like Cigarette Companies Worrying About Smog
The Daily Mail worrying about self-harm sites that prey on young women with self-esteem issues is like tobacco companies wringing their hands about car exhausts. The Mail traffics daily in the minute inspection of women’s bodies and the idea that they can never be right. No matter how beautiful the star, no matter how lovely her skin is, how styled she is, how impeccably turned out she is, The Mail will find a flaw to obsess over, a moment when she went outside without makeup, a time on the beach where the camera angle was unflattering.
How dare The Daily Mail, of all places, run stories decrying the “toxic online world” when it is so toxic it practically glows with hatred and judgment. Its latest target is Tumblr. Its latest vehicle for its manufactured outrage is the death of a 15-year-old and the understandable grief, rage and incomprehension of the girl’s mother. Of course, it’s important that the Mail notes that the girl was “privately-educated” and lived in a house worth £1 million.
The girl’s mother – and I’m avoiding naming her or the girl here because I really do not think doing so helps anyone – said, according to The Daily Mail, that “she was horrified when she discovered pictures of her daughter self-harming on the blogging website, Tumblr, and the family had tried to protect her”. Of course The Mail deliberately continues to misunderstand the difference between a centralised website and a platform such as Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr. It suits its aims to do so.
In the sad case of this young woman, there are many other factors that could have contributed to her taking her own life. The Samaritans are clear in their guidelines on reporting suicide that one cause should not be ascribed to a death. But The Daily Mail ignores that often and did in this case. It related the words of the girl’s mother with no balancing statements: “She was in the clutches of a toxic digital world where in the final few weeks we could no longer reach her.”
Look at the way, The Daily Mail describes the girl: “The youngest of three girls whose parents are divorced, [she] lived with her family in a £1 million house in West Hampstead, North-West London. She had a bright future and had been head-hunted by the Royal Ballet School…during the inquest [the coroner] described two sides of [the girl]. One was a talented horse rider and a “confident, lively, engaged, lovely-looking girl’, the other was a troubled teenager who suffered from self-loathing”.
If that description sounds familiar then you may have read such books as The Bell Jar, Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted. Self-harming, self-loathing and troubled lives did not descend upon teenage girls with the invention of the internet and social networks. But in the world of The Daily Mail and Mail Online, it is modern life that is to blame rather than a complex patchwork of factors. The girl in question was bullied at school, she was diagnosed with clinical depression, she had a fractured family, she did not like the way she looked, she created a drug-taking, self-harming character online. All of these and none of these may have been the ultimate reason she decided she could not carry on.
Speaking about the girl’s 18,000 followers on Tumblr who saw photos of her self-harming and posts about drinking and taking cocaine, her mother said: “She didn’t think she could have friends in the real world. I told her it wasn’t real. It was scary.” Online friendships and connections are real, especially real to teenagers. I remember how important my friendships with people from across the world I met through the Courtney Love and Hole forum were when I was a 14-year-old and being bullied at school. Telling teenagers their online life is “not real” is rarely going to help.
It suits The Daily Mail to focus on the internet’s role in the death of this young woman. What about the failures of the mental health system or educators to help her through the bullying? And why does it matter that she lived in an expensive house and went to an expensive school? Well, because The Daily Mail is particularly bothered when a rich person takes their own life. Why would they? Being rich is everything, right? Had the girl been a state school pupil living in a council house with a single mother on benefits, it would have been the mother they blamed for her feral child’s feckless death.