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MumsnetGuestPosts (MNHQ) Wed 19-Feb-14 11:48:07

Guest post: When I was bullied at school, home was my refuge. Today's kids have no escape

Joanna Shields is one of the UK's most high-profile digital businesswomen, with key roles at Google, Facebook and AOL under her belt. But as a teenager, she was bullied to the point of breakdown. In an interview with Red Magazine this month, she argues that today’s victims of online bullying find it harder to escape than ever - and that schools, parents and tech industry leaders cannot look the other way.

Do share your thoughts - is online bullying something you worry about for your children?

Joanna Shields

Leader, UK/US online Task Force

Posted on: Wed 19-Feb-14 11:48:07


Lead photo

Joanna Shields is leading the US/UK TaskForce to stop online exploitation and abuse of children.

I've never spoken about what happened to me at high school, so I called my mum to ask whether she thought I should do so now. “Are you sure you want to bring back those bad memories?” she said. But I am sure: I think my story can help young people believe that they can find a way out, as I did - and I hope it might serve as a wake-up call for adults too.

It began in the summer of 1976, when I was 13 years old. My family went on a holiday and I missed a big end-of-year school party. Sometimes, when you're not there, you're the one the other kids start talking about and picking on. When I got back, I was ostracised. It didn't end until I was 17.

I'd had my braces off that spring - I was blossoming into a young woman, and starting to grow up. That was the trigger, I think. The comments started coming: “You think you're beautiful now”, “You think you are so hot” – that sort of thing. It began as verbal abuse, but soon escalated until it was almost institutionalised. It seemed everyone was involved.

School life revolved around your locker, and mine was broken into nearly every day. I was always afraid to open it because of what they'd put in there. There would be a dead fish hanging by the gills from my coat hook, dripping over my things. Or tampons and other sanitary products taped to the inside. Or the scrapings of food from people's lunches thrown everywhere – on my clothes, my books. Just horrendous stuff.

Winters are incredibly cold in Pennsylvania, so we all wore thick, opaque tights to keep warm. A group of really tough girls would take a comb, and slash at the back of my knees, tearing my tights off; I'd be left freezing all day in -25°C temperatures. Or I'd be wrestled or knocked down, and they'd pull my hair and kick me. They'd hide my uniform when I was at gym class so that I couldn't find my clothes, or just throw my stuff in the bin.

Oddly, the more the abuse escalated, the more passive I became. I didn't think there was anything I could do to stop it. I didn't tell my teachers or my parents what was going on. I thought if I did, my mum would intervene and it would get worse. I was completely alone. I felt scared most of the time, and consequently, I was sick a lot. I missed so much school, probably 30 or 40 days a year. I just couldn't handle it.

I think of those years of bullying as torture.But at least, during those high-school years, I could escape to my home. For kids today, it's impossible to hide. They are connected 24/7, and the abuse they suffer continues at home, on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and

One evening, I went to a basketball game between my Catholic school and the local public school. I was with a couple of girls – bless them, they had the courage to sit with me – and I felt okay. We were watching the game when this noise started, a chanting between the two sides. I thought it was competitive banter. We all started listening to it, then we all realised at the same time – the entire gymnasium was chanting, “Joann Shields is fat, Joann Shields is fat.” It just went on and on and on; everyone was laughing hysterically and pointing at me. Eventually, the mother of a classmate very quietly took me by the arm, and walked me out of the door.

In the end, my body gave up. I was diagnosed with glandular fever and had to stop going to school. For the first time in a long time, I felt safe - I finished my coursework from home, and never went back, except to receive my diploma. I haven't been back to my hometown for more than two weeks at a time since.

At university, I finally managed to make two friends - they're still my best friends today. I remember once we were laughing hysterically, as you do with your best mates. I was overcome with emotion and started to cry: I hadn't believed I could ever be that happy again. To this day, though, I still have fears about friendships with women: I overcompensate when someone doesn't like me because, to be quite honest, I'm afraid of what they might do. Afraid that something could go wrong, like it did during that summer back in 1976.

After university, I moved to Silicon Valley, eventually taking up key roles at tech companies Google, AOL, Bebo and Facebook. In all these roles, I have kept my high-school experience close to mind. Technology affords us so many benefits, but it can also be used in terrible ways - and I have always believed that the leaders of this industry must take responsibility, and ensure that products and platforms are not used to hurt others in any way that can possibly be avoided.

I think of those years of bullying as torture. It was like being stuck in a cell and pulled out every now and then to be abused, then sent back. It was relentless. But at least, during those high-school years, I could escape to my home; it was my sanctuary. If any of the bullies wanted to get hold of me, they had to ring the landline and my mum would usually answer. For kids today, it's impossible to hide. They are connected 24/7, and the abuse they suffer at school continues at home, on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and It's always there, taunting them.

When it's easy to ruin someone's life by hitting 'post' or 'send", we need to come together and intervene. It's not the products or tools, but the people who are using them – and those who look the other way. In this evolving world of ever-more complex social interactions, we must find new ways to protect our children from harm.

Kids have to feel safe to say "Stop". We need celebrities whom kids respect to talk about this, and we need to hear from kids and adults who were bullied - about successful coping strategies, about what to do if it's happening to you. On the other side, it needs to be cool to say, “I'm not going to hurt this person” - because the opportunities to hurt are always 'on'. We never disconnect.

In 2005, I did something that surprised me: I went back to a reunion. That year, I felt strong - I looked great, and I had a job with Google, the hottest tech company on the planet. Somebody asked, "Are you someone's wife?" and I said, "No, I'm Joanna Shields. You don't remember me?" You could see the shock and horror on their faces as they remembered what had happened, probably for the first time in decades.

I don't bear any bitterness towards my classmates: I have a very good life and those experiences, no matter how horrible, have made me into who I am. Those coping mechanisms I developed 30 years ago – the relentless drive that I had to overcome my situation – have served me well throughout my life. I think it is important to remember, when we find ourselves feeling down and desperate, that it's not where you are today that defines you; it's the distance you will travel, and the person you will become that truly matters.

Read the full interview with Joanna at at

By Joanna Shields

Twitter: @joannashields

Oblomov Wed 19-Feb-14 12:00:36

Good god. What a sad post. But a good one.
I love your teal jacket in the photo!!

katherine2008 Wed 19-Feb-14 12:28:57

You are so brave. I was bullied at school, but not to the terrible extent to which you were. Nevertheless it was a demeaning and terrifying experience and I still find myself trying to bat way feelings of worthlessness. And I have genuine fears for my 5 year old daughter's generation.

beeny Wed 19-Feb-14 14:31:40

Well done for everything you have achieved

katslo77 Wed 19-Feb-14 14:52:46

What strength you have. A very timely post as I was talking about this with a friend yesterday. My daughter is 7 and I am already dreading the day she begins to interact more online, especially as I have recently suffered at the hands of bullies, who seemed to be almost constant companions courtesy of social media. It was unpleasant and uncomfortable for me so goodness knows what it's like as a young person already unsure of themselves and trying to find their place in the world. I'm glad at least one person in the industry appreciates the issues, but I'm sorry that it was such a horrid experience that took you there.

wordsmithsforever Wed 19-Feb-14 16:25:22

What a fantastic inspirational post. I think it will be of tremendous benefit to young people - so helpful to those who are being bullied to see that it's not "their fault" but also helpful to those who might be tempted to become bullies - to see what a terrible impact bullying has.

BehindLockNumberNine Wed 19-Feb-14 16:45:39

Fantastic post - I went to an American high school and was bullied quite badly. Not as extensively as in your post, but pretty much ostracized by my peers and mocked behind my back. (I was tall, not American, young for my age, had no fashion sense and had braces. That seemed to make me a target. I was bookish too...)
Home was my refuge, no mobiles, no computers, no internet. I recharged my mental batteries at the weekends and school holidays.

It has left me scarred in terms of friendships now. I am very good at the initial chit chat, can strike up a conversation with a complete stranger at the drop of a hat. But I am unable to accept that anyone would actually want to be friends with me. I am convinced some people are 'only being kind' and that their friendships are not genuine. I often, unwittingly, push people away as I become aloof and distrusting sad I constantly second - guess myself about my friendships. I turn invitations down as I worry about socialising but then become jealous when potential friends find other friends and have a social life without me. Friendships cause anxiety sad

When ds was bullied at age 11 - 12 I took it very very badly. I suffered a bit of a nervous breakdown over it as all those pent-up emotions came flooding back. I am afraid I was neither use nor ornament to ds at that time.

It never leaves you and I fully accept that it is even worse nowadays with social media and mobile phones.


Lostlou Wed 19-Feb-14 18:26:46

I love this article, for all the wrong reasons sadly...

BehindLockNumberNine I am just fascinated by your second paragraph about how you feel about friendships now. I was bullied horrendously at school (in the UK) and walked out of there without a single close friend to keep in touch with. My feelings surrounding the formation of friendships are exactly the same as yours (I'm now 40).

I can talk to anyone, anywhere just like you, but don't have any very close friends that I am in regular contact with. I wonder whether the bullying at school which went on the entirety of my senior school life from 11-18 has affected things to this day. I went to a private all girls school and was made to stay on at sixth form by my parents, so there wasn't even the opportunity to escape from it all by going to a local college instead. I spent EVERY SINGLE DAY of those 7 years at senior school trying not to be physically sick every time I walked through the school gates.

I went into a village hall once, years ago (in my early 30s), and they must have used the same floor polish as they did in the corridors of my senior school as I recognised the smell instantly and had to leg it into the ladies loo where I was retching over the sink for several minutes in shock!

How any child copes today with it 24/7 I have no idea. Without the partial escape of home life on a daily basis I doubt I'd still be alive sad

I am so sorry for your DS and hope things are getting better for you both.

Wishfulmakeupping Wed 19-Feb-14 19:36:35

Such an inspiring story for teenagers going through this right now.
You must have felt amazing at the reunion smile

saintlyjimjams Wed 19-Feb-14 21:09:59

My son was bullied in year 5/6. It was eventually sorted but the thing that shocked me the most was how long it took him to tell me. It came out eventually because having been moody and not himself for months my mum said to him one day 'ds2 just WHAT is the matter' and it all came out in a sobbing mess. It took a while to sort out - but we did get there. He's at a new school now, with no problems, but the scars have stayed with him and at the first sign it might happen again he can panic. He does at least talk to me now. I think when it first happened he was ashamed, I hope now that we're past that - I hope he understands he's not responsible if someone else decides to be horrible to him and I hope he can tell me anything (I think he can - he seems to tell me a lot more now with no sense of shame).

Thank you for sharing your story. It's heartbreaking actually - and having seen my son go through a lot less for nowhere near as long I can't begin to imagine what you dealt with.

heather1 Wed 19-Feb-14 21:25:35

Thank you for sharing, it was emotional for me to read. I was bullied at secondary school, I would never go back for a reunion. My Dh went to the same school and was bullied too, he revels in the fact he has worked hard and 'done well for himself '.
My Ds was bullied at his primary school it was really horrific bullying, I removed him when it was clear the school didn't care. I was surprised how it brought back memories of my experiences at school.
He was so much happier and felt safe at home. I will always treasure the time we spent together and would not hesitate to do it again should it become necessary. He is now at a new school and it very happy.

BehindLockNumberNine Wed 19-Feb-14 21:27:37

Lostlou, sorry to hear you went to similar. It sucks doesn't it. My bullying went from age 13 to age 18. I left that school and am not in touch with anyone from it.
I feel envious of those who have friends from their school and uni days.

I did make some friends at uni but as it was all still so raw I kept a safe distance and did not get too close to anyone. As a result I did not make any lasting friendships there either.

I am 42 now, I have not had a best or close friend since I was 10. And I miss that.

Ds is now 14 and a half and is just fine. He handled the bullying (and it included some cyberbullying) with a pragmatism and maturity which amazed me.

Joanna, well done on going to a reunion. There is absolutely no way in the world I will ever, ever, be brave enough to attend a reunion.

Quixo Wed 19-Feb-14 21:56:50

You are absolutely right. There really isn't any escape and simply just not using social media is not enough. The weight of its existence and knowing that abusive words, pictures and content are there is suffocating. It is another variant and another place for bullying and one which is slipperier than gangs in a playground.

I only realised I was bullied, properly bullied, a few years ago and I left school 15 years ago. The experiences I had shaped so much of who I was/still am and I am still noticing aspects of my character and behaviours that were created because of it. It affected my entire development at a very critical time because it was so insidious. I can only imagine the additional stress had something like been about.

Young people using twitter/fb/ etc are made to feel that they are at the near bleeding edge of the moment. There is no time for reflection and communication is everything. Combined with the certain dislocation that you get using social media, anyone can feel like they have more power than they ever did before. If this is used in an abusive way then those being abused will feel a massive loss of power and control. It is more public and is another layer of humiliation and anxiety.
I think policing these media's is almost impossible. They self regulate according to factors way beyond our control.
Joanna's last few lines makes me think she has almost answered her questions. It seems that beating a bully is allowing the experience to become part of who you are, not simply who you are. Then they are not beating you. I don't want to seem flippant. I don't mean to be. But I feel the best way to challenge bullies is to ensure our children are equipped to cope with them. To me, I think this is the only practical solution. It is seriously lacking, but bullies are everywhere, and always will be. Squashing social media will not stop bullying. And what of tomorrow's technology? I don't believe I can protect my children 100%, not without bundling them up in cotton wool. But, I can help them to know when they are being bullied, I can give them someone to trust and I can do my best to give them security so they are resilient enough to not be broken by it. It might not stop the bullies but it will limit the impact and hopefully leave a strong and capable person at the end.

3TeensAargh Wed 19-Feb-14 22:07:11

I was bullied in 1975 at 12 for 9 months. What always amazes me is that we know so much about psychology these days but we are still so hopeless at dealing with this stuff. We need to stop being so blind about children and what they are capable of. Sociopaths don't just spring into the world fully formed at 18 - some of us have the misfortune to run into them at school. My own tormentor was a narcissistic sadist who I had adored as a 'best friend' but whose 'friendship' was an information gathering exercise, so she knew every button to push when she turned on me. And the weaklings who went along with her, backed her up, made her powerful, enjoyed themselves by reducing me to rubble daily ... I'm almost more angry with them than her. I agree with every word Joanna says. The only place I was safe was home and it horrifies me that today's youngsters have nowhere they can't be reached.

Stockhausen Thu 20-Feb-14 12:01:35

Marking place, I will be back!

rubyblue Thu 20-Feb-14 14:26:09

BehindLockNumber9 you should be proud of your son and also of yourself for raising him to deal with the bullying, particularly given what you went through. I hope you can trust someone enough to become good friends with them.

I was not bullied at school, well, not on-going just a few name calling incidents early on but I did go to my school reunion and hated every minute of it. Which was weird as I actually enjoyed school but the people who attended were so competitive and nasty. It was like being back in the playground again and brought back the feeling of being inadequate (and I'm a pretty confident person). Never again and I would say don't do it!!

tantrumtime Thu 20-Feb-14 16:06:47

I had to read this because although my children are very young (only 1 and 2) I am already terrified by the prospect that they will be ruled by technology that does not ever go away.
I was so lucky to never be bullied (it just didn't happen at our school) but knew a close friend who went to a different school and was hounded during school hours. Gone are the days when you left your work/school life outside as soon as you put your key in the front door.
I am glad you feel no bitterness, a lovely post.

SarahPatricia Fri 21-Feb-14 23:03:08

Your beautiful, intelligent and strong - an inspiration to everyone smile

Lizcowleycolton Sun 23-Feb-14 17:30:08

Your account of the bullying you suffered is so powerful and I recognise so many of the feelings you talk of. I was not bullied as a child and have always been super tuned to my own children and have dealt with some situations for and with them. Imagine my shock to be bullied as an adult! It made me feel and act just as you describe. Bullying is such a terrible thing for anyone to suffer, it's good to talk about it, make people aware and give support to others. The first rule is always tell, never suffer in silence!

LauraBridges Sun 23-Feb-14 18:18:44

I take the opposite view. When you meet friends in real time they can push you up against the wall and beat the stuffing out of you. In your room you can just shut down your phone.

Sticks and stones can hurt my bones but words can never hurt me, every child learns and most try to follow.

Electronics and the like free children and make them safer.

nooka Sun 23-Feb-14 18:47:27

Sorry but that really is an incredibly stupid saying. People have their lives destroyed all the time by 'words'.

I take a different view about digital communication. One of the major issues with bullying is that it is hidden from the adults who can do something about it. When things escalated for my dd it helped to be able to take screenshots of the nastiness and take it into school, show to the parents of the other children and get it sorted out. It was however only at the words stage, and where I get worried is when pictures are involved.

At my children's school there was recently an incident where pictures where shared by an ex-boyfriend. Much more concerning because it's so hard to make sure all copies are destroyed. In this case the school has come down very very hard, and the police are prosecuting. Our local police are very good on the anti-bullying front, work closely with schools and are very proactive.

In the case of the blogger what strikes me as incredibly sad is that even when the bulling came into the open nothing seems to have been done.

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