The Girl Who Woke Up The World: Amanda Todd

October 1, 2013

 

 

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n 2012, the third most Googled person was a Grade 10 girl from Port Coquitlam. Amanda Todd liked cheerleading-being petite, she got to be at the top of the pyramid-and she liked to sing. She would perform covers before her computer's camera and post them on a YouTube account titled SomeoneToKnow. In these, her adolescent pursuits, she was entirely typical. Yet when Todd took her own life on October 10 (World Mental Health Day), her seemingly ordinary life was recast as the most notorious cyber-bullying case in history.

That was a year ago, but the well-known series of events that led up to her decision had played out long before. When still in Grade 7, she was convinced by a yet-unidentified man to expose her breasts via webcam. He blackmailed and harassed her for years afterward with the captured image of her nude body. ("Put on a show for me," he would order.) She became the subject of a tormenting Facebook profile, which featured her breasts as its profile picture.

In an effort to avoid harassment from peers she switched schools twice in the space of a year. A gang of young girls beat her (while others stood by and recorded the scene on their phones). Eventually, she became so paranoid and anxious that she could not leave home. She first attempted to kill herself by drinking from a bottle of bleach, which only led to more of the online bullying that drove her to that action in the first place.

A month before her death, she posted a video unpacking her heart and her story. The picture is black and white. She stands before the camera, visible from just below the eyes down to her waist. She holds up, and flips through, a series of flashcards detailing her ordeal. This time she isn't singing someone else's song but describing for viewers (in a broken way, for she suffered from a language-based learning disability) her own suffering. Naturally, this opened her once again to the attacks of faceless online commenters. The girls who had assaulted her posted own comments only hours after the video was uploaded.

On the eve of Amanda Todd's death, her mother, Carol, looked at the video and saw it had 2,800 views. The next morning there were 10,000. Two weeks later, the video had been watched 17 million times. Countless media outlets, including the New Yorker, Anderson Cooper 360, and Dateline, picked up the story. Vigils were held in 38 countries. All this has thrust Carol Todd into a position where she can help bring about change, but she also carries the burden of reciting to strangers, over and over again, her grief. I understood why she deferred or cancelled our meeting a half-dozen times, and I decided to stop bothering her. Recently, she acquiesced.

When we meet, at the Earls in Port Coquitlam, we have sandwiches and coffee served to us by pretty, polished girls about the age Amanda would be now. Carol-in black hoodie and thick-rimmed glasses-is sedate but determined, regularly questioning my questions.

She has reason to be skeptical: having made herself known online, she has become a victim of the same cyber-stalking her daughter faced. "I got a message from one troll just this morning," she begins. "He said that I'm doing this because I'm an attention lover." Todd maintains Amandatoddlegacy.org, where she advocates for reform in schools and government. She has set up a legacy fund through the Vancouver Foundation to support anti-bullying initiatives; met with Laureen Harper, then-provincial health minister Margaret MacDiarmid, and NDP health critic Mike Farnworth; and flown to cities across the continent to raise funds and awareness. Like her daughter, Carol decided to broadcast herself more when faced with harassment-not quiet down.

"Amanda wasn't unique in having all this happen to her, though," I say. Recent research from Michigan State University has found that children regularly bullied online have more suicidal thoughts than those bullied offline. "Why did Amanda become such a rallying force?"

"Well, it was the video, obviously. It was always the video. If she hadn't made that video you wouldn't be sitting here."

We have all, in some way, become complicit in the massive broadcasting that online life invites. But occasionally someone-usually a digital native like Amanda-will turn something banal like YouTube into a scorching confessional, and we are shaken into real awareness. The very technology that was a vehicle for her harassment has emerged a year later as the driving force in her transformation from "another bullying statistic" to, in her mother's words, "something that woke up the world."

Lunch over, Carol fishes from her purse a couple of pink silicon bracelets, each emblazoned with Amanda Todd and Stay Strong. "Thanks," I reply, not sure if that's what you say to such a gift.

"Will you let me see this piece before you put it in the magazine?"

"Oh, we actually don't-" She stops me. "You understand: I'm still her mother. I still need to protect her."

And yet, I want to say, Amanda's story-consumed by millions, repeated across thousands of web pages, pored over in a flood of commentary-has been pushed so far beyond the grip of a mother's care.

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