From cyber-bullying to trolling, the internet threat to young people is very real and growing all the time. Rod McPhee meets an angry mother whose daughter took her own life after visiting suicide websites.
“When she was 12 the school had a sort of celebration to mark the pupils growing up.” says Susan D’Arcy, recalling one of the happiest memories of her daughter “It was a dinner where parents attended and, at the end, each child stood up and gave a presentation on something that was very dear to their hearts.
“She was quite shy, but she got out of her seat and her presentation was just awesome. I was so proud of her and I just remember thinking: ‘We’re going see great things from this one.’ Then, just six months later, she did the most devastating and unbelievable thing.”
It was actually Imogen’s father, Paul, that discovered his daughter in the bathroom of their home in Adel, Leeds, with an electrical cord wrapped around her neck. It was December 1, 2007, just a week later she was taken from hospital to Martin House Hospice where her life support machine was switched off.
In June Imogen would have turned 18, sat her A-Levels and probably started preparing to go off to university.
“She was very quiet and sensitive and I think she was struggling to grow up.” says Mrs D’Arcy “She had friends, she wasn’t being bullied and she didn’t have anorexia. But she was living in a world where there is a lot of pressure to look good, to wear the right clothes and do the right things.
“Imogen was such a mature, sensible, lovable, kind daughter. I really thought I had the ideal teenager. I know all parents think their children are great, but she was the last person in the world we thought would end her life.”
What tipped the balance, the family believes, was suicide websites. Vile online guides to killing yourself which gave her the means to escape whatever inner turmoil she was enduring.
“There were no signs that there was anything really wrong with her at all. She had become a little moody, like most teenagers. I really think that she had set her mind on taking her own life and the internet just gave her the tools,” says Mrs D’Arcy “but that still means that someone out there put this information on the web and that someone is responsible for my daughter’s death. And I’m angry.
“I honestly believe that if she hadn’t have had this information then she would probably still have tried to end it all, but I don’t think she would have succeeded. I think she needed the information off the site to do it successfully.
“And the sites were just horrendous. When we disovered them, I just couldn’t believe she’d been looking at them.
“I was horrified by the amount of information. It was set out clearly: every single possible way to kill yourself, how to do it, what would happen and how long it would take to die. To think that my 13-year-old daughter could go on these sites and select one of these methods, you just think: ‘What on earth went through her head?’”
Over the past five years the family have asked themselves the same questions over and over again, taking themselves to the edge of despair as they try to pinpoint what troubled Imogen enough to take such drastic measures.
Now they have finally achieved some kind of peace, resigned to the fact that they will never get to the bottom of her emotional state and that little could have been done to prevent what happened.
Mrs D’Arcy says: “With suicide you reach a stage where you have put it down and let go. You have to make a conscious decision to stop constantly asking yourself the same questions, because there aren’t any definite answers.
“But that doesn’t stop you getting angry. You see stories in the paper all the time, about children who are neglected or mistreated or abused yet somehow they pull through. And you think: why did my child not pull through?
“Imogen had a good life, a good family and we took good care of her. We would have moved the earth to protect her and yet this still happened to her.”
Which is why, despite the pain, Mrs D’Arcy has chosen to speak out to warn other parents of the dangers the internet poses to their children.
She believes new legislation isn’t a complete solution and that families are, ultimately, the last line of defence.
“I’m left with the sense of anger at the waste of her life.” she says “I’m angry about the people who put that information online and the fact they’re callous enough go on the net and actively encourage people to take their lives.
“And I’m angry, more generally, at the culture we have where people say: ‘We have a right to do whatever we like, irrespective of the effect it has on people, particularly children.’
“We seem to have lost any sense of moral values. You only need to speak to teachers in schools to see the mounting problems with the internet. It is the parents’ generation that’s created these problems, but it’s our children who are paying the price for it.
“So I keep speaking in the hope it will alert some people to the possible dangers: do not think it couldn’t happen to your child because it happened to mine. There was no reason for it to happen to mine, but it did.
“I’d warn parents not to be complacent. Your child doesn’t have to be a manic depressive to attempt suicide and just because they’re behind a computer screen, and not playing somewhere out on the street, doesn’t mean they are safe.”
The D’Arcy family are starting to rebuild some semblance of a normal life. Every year they celebrate Imogen’s birthday and mark the anniversary of her death on December 1, then look forward to Christmas.
Mrs D’Arcy even believes they have become stronger as a result of coming to terms with what happened, developing coping mechanisms and turning to their Christian faith for solace.
“They say time’s a healer, but I’m not sure it is” she says “You just learn to carry the pain and carry on. There’s still not a day goes by when I don’t think of Imogen and every now again a memory or a thought will come into your head and it hits you like a train.
“But I have my faith, and losing Imogen didn’t test it, it only made it stronger. I don’t think I could cope with the thought of her just being wiped out of existence. In that respect my Christianity is a great comfort to me.
“I firmly believe that my child is separated from me, but one day I will see her again.”
Complex legal arguments
Greg Mulholland is the D’Arcy family’s MP and since being made aware of the tragic circumstances surrounding Imogen’s death has spent the last five years trying to exact changes to protocol and legislation.
One step forward came only last month when the Department of Health launched a suicide prevention strategy, one aspect of which aimed to tackle the misuse of the web to encourage people to take their own lives.
But he admits changes in the law may also be necessary to fully combat the threat.
Mr Mulholland said: “My understanding is that the Suicide Act, which actually dates back to 1962, still hasn’t changed, so it still contains the odd definition which states that to have assisted someone in taking their own lives you must have met them.
“That definition clearly can’t apply in the case of these sites and for that reason I think that should be looked at now.”
The MP also believes there should be greater transparency and the inability to remain anonymous online.
But he also urges caution, eager not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“I think governments taking too close control over the net can also be a dangerous thing, so it’s about getting the balance right. There’s a long, legal discussion to be had about that too.
“And there may be good reasons for this kind of information to be on the net for all kinds of reasons. For example, if you’re a paramedic you may have to act to help resuscitate someone who has attempted to take their own lives. So, they would need to be made aware of the various methods involved in suicide.”
Web trolls know no boundaries
The recent phenomenon of internet trolling has seen a number of famous faces become targets for random internet abuse.
Only this week, Brit singer Adele had the joy of becoming a first-time mother tainted when a handful of online abusers decided to insult rather than congratulate her.
And in the summer a few sick individuals even taunted former Take That singer and The X Factor judge, Gary Barlow, when his daughter was stillborn.
But trolls have the ability to upset more than famous faces, or even a small number of individuals. Now they can create widespread hurt for hundreds of people – often when they need it the least.
In Leeds, website Gone Too Soon, gives the public the chance to post tributes to people who have lost their lives in tragic circumstances. And, given the nature of the site, many of them are young people.
But that hasn’t stopped a string of insensitive individuals posting cruel remarks on a variety of the one million memorials they host.
Michele Francis is one of the administrators and moderators who has spent the past year sporadically trying to combat the trolls.
“We’ve had people posting things about disabled children, some with deformities” she says “And they say stuff like: ‘They’re better off dead’ and that sort of thing.’ Or there might be a young lad killed in a knife attack and they’ll say ‘He deserved that’ or similar.
“It’s just horrendous because Gone Too Soon is somewhere that offers comfort for people who are in their darkest hour. Imagine how upsetting it is to read this kind of nasty post on your memorial.”
Michele can sometimes go days without finding any evidence of trolls on the site, but then she may have to deal with a flurry of sick posts.
“We can’t know for sure, but it seems the guilty parties tend to be divided between really sick individuals and people who just think they’re having a laugh” she says “We also have ‘fake’ memorials set up with horrible pictures sometimes.
“Some just want attention, for example, we had one girl who set up a whole imaginary family of people who each had a memorial - it took me about two days to remove them all.”