So beautiful. So talented. But for girls like Ella the internet makes the agonies of teenage life so much harder

By Sarah Vine

Ella Hysom, 15, went missing on Monday afternoon, having left a residential clinic where she was being treated for depression

Ella Hysom, 15, went missing on Monday afternoon, having left a residential clinic where she was being treated for depression

This was the kind of all-too-familiar footage that twists a knot in every parent’s gut.

A pretty teenage girl caught on CCTV; her worried mother, appealing for her return, talking to camera, telling her how much she is loved; her father looking on in silent shock as the police issue the facts of her last sighting.

Ella Hysom, 15, went missing on Monday afternoon, having left a residential clinic where she was being treated for depression.

Thankfully, she was found yesterday, spotted by a member of the public in Ilford town centre, and has now been reunited with her family.

A happy ending, then. But let us not be too hasty in consigning this tale to yesterday’s news agenda. Because what happened to Ella could happen to any of our daughters.

It was a drama played out, as is now the norm, on a virtual stage.

The smiling family photographs pulled from Facebook; the warning signs and the cries for help, gleaned from a trawl of her Twitter account; the disturbing images from her Tumblr page, where people post photographs and messages, including a picture of suicide poster-boy Kurt Cobain, fragments of poetry, a snap of a bleeding wrist.

And yet at the centre of it all is a very real person. 

Ella from Colchester. A keen rower and ballroom dancer, deputy head girl at her foundation school, a girl described as ‘gregarious’, ‘lively’ and ‘confident’.

The kind of girl every mother wants her daughter  to be: pretty, clever, popular, full  of promise. 

The kind of girl whose smile shines out of school portraits, the very epitome of the British middle-class parental dream.

But this is also the Ella who wrote on her Twitter account that she was ‘100 per cent sure people walk past me and say how ugly I am’, an expression of self-loathing completely at odds with the beautiful blonde smiling out of the picture. 

The same girl who, on Tumblr, regularly expressed a hopelessness that no child of that age should have to contemplate.

A girl clearly plagued, to a debilitating extent, by darkness  and doubt.
A trawl through her online accounts — open, as ever, for all the world to see — reveals a girl haunted by concerns about her appearance, confusion about relationships, lack of confidence, a broken heart  (she has recently split up with her boyfriend).

Normal worries that in a normal world would probably never have made it past her bedroom door.

But which, unleashed online, develop a life and a power all of their own. 

On Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, her fears have thrived and solidified.

In May, she posted a picture of the model Cara Delevingne, with the caption: ‘Please can I just be like her?’

Ella Hysom, 15, was reunited with her family following a sighting by a member of the public three days after she vanished

Ella Hysom, 15, was reunited with her family following a sighting by a member of the public three days after she vanished

Then a quote from Kate Moss: ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.’

And a picture of a slim woman, holding a pair of scissors to her belly, with the word FAT emblazoned across it.

Ella’s other tweets are just as disturbing.

Last month, shortly before she entered the clinic, she wrote: ‘The higher I get the lower I sink. I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim... Pathetic that this is all over a boy. Lol [Laugh out loud] bye bye world until I’m healthy again.’

But perhaps what is most disturbing of all is the fact that I, a person who has never met her, was able to see into the darkest recesses of her young soul with just a few clicks of my mouse. 

A recent online reply to someone who left her the message: ‘I hope you’re feeling OK,’ was black in the extreme. Ella responded: ‘I’m not, I am really not.’

And then she disappeared.

Loneliness, depression, insecurity: it’s all there. This is not a girl with a thick skin. Not a girl who should really be wearing her heart on her Twitter feed.

For someone as fragile and as sensitive as Ella, the online environment is highly toxic. It creates a warped reflection of reality, a place in which success is judged not by how kind or how clever you are, but the number of Twitter followers you can muster. 

 

By that standard, the internet’s head girl is Miley Cyrus (with 15.5  million Twitter followers and almost 319 million YouTube hits), a young woman who promotes her records by straddling industrial machinery in her birthday suit and rutting her way through live performances like a demented gerbil. 

Head of the rival girl gang is Rihanna, who recently released a music video consisting almost entirely of her simulating intercourse astride a giant throne. 

It must be a very confusing message for a bright, sporty, young innocent like Ella, now entering an environment that judges young girls not by their academic achievements but by the size of the space between their inner thighs. 

That makes a girl as manifestly gorgeous as Ella write of herself: ‘Just make my boobs bigger, my arse nicer. Give me a thigh gap and make me skinny... my life is so empty right now. Pretty girls make me want to die.’

She had earlier written: ‘Every night I convince myself tomorrow will be different, but it never is... I feel kind of dead... boys don’t like fat girls. I think I’m more scared of living then I am of dying... Too young to be so sad.’

It’s fine for the likes of me. Other people’s opinions about your looks are all water off an old trout’s back. But for a young, unformed mind, this kind of thing can leave a  lasting impression. 

The teenage psyche is a fragile thing.

It craves freedom and independence, yet has neither the experience nor the knowledge to cope with either.

Old certainties — home, family — falter, as the adolescent makes the painful transition from childhood to adulthood. It is a period of complex mental and physical transformation.

Children need space to come to terms with the world.

They need time to paddle in the shallows before striking out into the deep. The internet slings them straight overboard into the shark pool. It’s no wonder that some go under.

Three themes dominate in Ella’s online persona. A disturbing obsession with her body, a lack of self-confidence and a vicious self-loathing that is heartbreaking to witness.

Ella, who is deputy head girl at her school, was said to be 'gregarious', 'lively' and 'confident'
Ella was last seen at about 1pm on Monday in Ilford, East London

Ella was found after she was spotted by a member of the public in Ilford town centre

This is a girl trying so hard to conform to the narrow, sexualised images and modern ideal of what a young woman should be. She’s doing her best to be sexy — the adult poses, the thigh-high split in her dress; but the smile is sweet and childish.  

It’s not just explicit pop videos and twerking that threatens young girls like Ella.

In many ways, these are the most obvious dangers, highlighted, if not yet resolved, in the media. But there are other, less obvious, but perhaps more long-term facts to consider.

Teenage years leave an indelible mark on the mind.

My own are still relatively raw, despite the considerable passage of time: worries about school, friendship, boys, my inability to fit into a  size 10 at Miss Selfridge. 

Now that my eldest is approaching that stage, the anxiety starts to return. Only more so.

Because I know that however hard a time I might have had, it’s going to be so much harder for my own daughter. For she, like the Ellas of the world, can’t afford to put a foot wrong.

In most respects, the internet is a wonderful invention. But, like all great inventions, in the wrong hands it can be lethal.

In particular, it poses a real risk to the young and the vulnerable. Not only because of the obvious dangers of an adult universe colliding with under-age minds; but also because of the fact that whatever you put out there never goes away.

Today’s young people live out their lives on the internet. They post or tweet every aspect of  their existence. 

Since popularity online is measured in terms of followers or hits, the natural teen desire for peer approval translates into increasingly desperate attempts to grab attention.

And if attention-seeking behaviour gets out of control, it can morph into something more sinister.

A sexy pose to please a potential boyfriend that somehow ends up in the wrong hands. A tearful tweet that gets passed around class like a stolen love letter.

Today's young people live out their lives on the internet. They post or tweet every aspect of  their existence

Today's young people live out their lives on the internet. They post or tweet every aspect of their existence

Experimentation is a natural and healthy part of being young. Mistakes are an entirely permissible — necessary, even — part of the process of growing up. 

And yet on the internet there can be no mistakes. The personal becomes the universal, and it will stay with you for ever.

Even now that she is safely at home again, Ella is still out there, all over the internet.

Whatever she does, whomever she becomes, this short incident in her life will always come back to haunt her. That is the legacy of the internet. It’s not Big Brother who’s watching you. It’s the whole damn world. 

In my day, there was still such a thing as a private life. However much of a fool you made of yourself, you knew you could always move on, get away, re-invent yourself. 

Back in those innocent, analogue days, the worst that could happen was for a mischievous sibling to steal your diary and sell it to the school bully.

But even then it could be destroyed, the humiliation shrugged off and then forgotten.

 

'Video-sharing websites such as YouTube thrive on the humiliation of others, and fast content-sharing ensures that  the slightest slip-up spreads  like wild-fire'

This internet, by contrast, records everything, turns the volume right up to 11 — and then plays it all back at you.

Video-sharing websites such as YouTube thrive on the humiliation of others, and fast content-sharing ensures that  the slightest slip-up spreads  like wild-fire. 

Take even the tiniest seed of self-doubt and put it into a search engine, and before you know it, here are seven million other people who are just as paranoid as you — and willing you to join their community of doom.

That is what is so heartbreaking about Ella’s case. She is a normal 15-year-old, prone to all the worries that afflict girls of her age.

To an outsider and a mother like myself, those words she’s written online are both baffling and profoundly distressing. 

They speak of a child so  overwhelmed by pressure that  she is unable to see herself as anything other than a failure. Even when, by most standards, she is a roaring success.

For Ella’s parents, who are clearly far from lacking in love and encouragement, every syllable must feel like a slice to the heart. 

How can they — and the rest of us — protect their children from this toxic, judgmental, unforgiving environment until they are truly strong enough and grown-up enough to cope with it?

That is the fight that faces the modern parent. And it’s not one I’m looking forward to.


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