Short story about online grooming: Breaking Point

March 21, 2023

Collage by Exposure with phone image by R. 井上, girl image by Victoria_Watercolor and matrix image by Jae Rue all from Pixabay

Craving more control of her life on social media only added to Stella’s woes

Stella didn’t seem like the type of person to be crushed and sucked in by depression. She did have friends, but they had started to exclude her because of her strict and obsessive parents. Stella’s classmates made jokes about how weird she was – to have a family like that.

Due to her parents’ high demands, Stella excelled in all her classes and she was one of the most academically acknowledged students at school. She would win awards and force a smile – and that just made her so-called friends resent her even more.

At home there was no escape. Stella felt miserable as her parents had an endless list of activities they forced on her, like figure skating, which she went to four times a week for three hours after school. They also expected her to live up to their expectations of bringing back her report card with nothing less than an ‘A’.

Stella’s diet was obsessively planned by her mother. She only allowed Stella to eat a proper meal once a day to maintain a slim figure for ice skating. Her mother was living vicariously through Stella, having failed herself to compete nationally in figure skating.

Stella was devastated… and angry. The NHS could have saved Granny, if only it wasn’t under so much pressure!

There were countless times when Stella wanted to attend school dances, events or birthday parties, but that was forbidden as her parents considered these an unproductive use of time. This left Stella feeling more and more alienated and frustrated. Instead, she would lose herself in a book or push her body to its limits.

The one person who had shown Stella unconditional love was her grandmother – but she had passed away suddenly from an infection. Stella was devastated… and angry. The NHS could have saved Granny, if only it wasn’t under so much pressure!

Stella had finally had enough of keeping everything to herself and decided to download Swipr, a social app where she could find ‘genuine’ new friends.

Drained after another long day, Stella flopped down on the sofa and made an online account that included selfies of herself. As she rapidly scrolled through her phone, Stella came across various users and discussion groups. Some topics were on the latest makeup trends while others were on pop culture. But Stella was after something more meaningful.

Stella hadn’t felt this at ease for a long time. At last she might find a community of people that would understand her and not judge her experiences. She was curious what the online world of making friends would be like – it was something she had never done before. She was even more keen, as for once she could be in total control – rather than her parents.

The more time Stella spent excessively glaring at her screen, the less time she spent interacting with others

Some online users messaged her directly or left comments underneath her selfies, praising Stella for her photogenic poses. She felt flattered. The profile that sent her the most praise was ‘Pete01’. He asked her how old she was and how her day was going so far.

Stella explained her situation, her grief about her gran; how she resented her parents for putting her through a gruelling routine every day; how sometimes she wished she could just escape from it all.

Her mother started noticing that Stella was spending more time online. Stella was getting to a point of being so absorbed by her mobile phone that Mum had to repeat herself several times – or wave her hands in front of Stella – to fully get her attention.

Her mother started getting worried. Stella was communicating less and wouldn’t explain what she was doing online. This habit not only continued at home but also in school. Stella’s grades slipped and she began changing her appearance. Before, she wore brightly coloured and patterned clothes, now it was dark and rough outfits.

The more time Stella spent excessively glaring at her screen, the less time she spent interacting with others until eventually she withdrew from everyone: her supposed friends, her teachers and her parents.

Even though what Stella said was out of order, the teacher remained non-judgmental to prevent Stella from shutting down

One day, Pete01 encouraged Stella to release all her anger by joining his online group, which encouraged threatening and assaulting minority groups. He claimed that immigrants were why her gran died – because the NHS couldn’t cope. He claimed that immigrants were why Stella’s parents were putting so much pressure on her – because there was far more competition.

Brainwashed, the next day Stella started yelling derogatory terms at non-white students as they walked passed her at school and threatened to attack anyone that got in her way.

Stella’s erratic behaviour was getting so out of hand one teacher calmly stopped her on the way back home. The teacher insisted Stella explain what was going on. Initially, Stella refused to say anything but the teacher persisted, reassuring Stella that she could trust her. Eventually, Stella opened up about her anger towards immigrants. Even though what Stella said was out of order, the teacher remained composed and non-judgmental to prevent Stella from shutting down.

When the teacher firmly challenged Stella’s confused and unfair comments, Stella reached breaking point and burst into tears. It’s then Stella explained everything: her bereavement, her problems at home, her lack of real friendships, her addiction to online life, her need to say hateful things to others to feel better about herself; to feel in control.

Barnet Council offers comprehensive advice for staying safe online.

Part of Exposure’s Extreme Caution campaign, enabling young people to tackle online grooming and hate, supported by Young Barnet Foundation. Due to the sensitive nature of this project author names have been anonymised.

Exposure is a youth communications charity enabling young people to thrive creatively, for the good of others as well as themselves.

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