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What I Learned from Being a Target of Internet Hate at Age 13

by Rebecca Black /
Image: Rebecca BlackCourtesty Rebecca Black

I was skipping my way through the minefield of early adolescence, experiencing the same low-grade bullying that most kids do, when I recorded a music video during a school break, just to help me gain some experience and have some fun. When “Friday” went up on the internet, it went crazy — and the onslaught of negative attention I received was so sudden and so intense that I wasn’t sure I would survive.

One minute, I was a normal girl and then, in the next, millions of people know who I was and they were ruthless in hurling the most vile words my way. People were writing things all over the internet, on social media and they were laughing at me on TV shows, and making fun of me in YouTube videos. It was open season and I was the target. The fact that there was a human, a person — a 13-year-old girl — on the other side of the screen seemingly escaped so many people’s attention.

An adolescent girl is, at best, pretty confused as to what life is all about and usually struggling to navigate this world around us as we’re beginning to be seen as adults but without the emotions or experience to handle adulthood. It is so challenging to live up to all the requirements that a hugely demanding society places on us women; to perform, to look exquisite, to be fun, to be smart, to be popular. It is just too much; we are not created to be "perfect" and it is not fair to demand so much from a young girl, let alone from any grown woman or any human.

Although I was hurt to my core by the intense nastiness, I had absolutely no way to deal with that, so I shut down. Looking back, I can see that that was actually a pretty sensible way that my brain coped with the stress of what I was experiencing: Pretending that the bad things were not that bad and easy to shake off, was the only way I knew to handle it.

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Although I was hurt to my core by the nastiness, I had absolutely no way to deal with that, so I shut down.

(And, there were some breaks in the clouds: I went on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno; I ended up on red carpets; I got to meet and work with Katy Perry who, in the midst of so much hate directed at me was nice to me in a totally non-ironic way. It didn’t make up for the abuse I was experiencing, but between that and the adults who tried to protect me, maybe it did help mitigate some of the worst of the pain and fear.)

I will never fully understand how I became one of the first people to experience online bullying in an extremely intense way. But I do know now that what happened to me is truly just a global extension of something that goes on in every school, on every computer screen and in every neighborhood.

I’m currently on tour and, talking to so young kids and teens in school, I know now just how common it is to experience bullying, both the kind I knew before my video went viral, and what I experienced after. Today, really young kids are being targeted and it is starting earlier than it did for me.

 Black takes a selfie with a fan in Los Angeles in 2015. Matt Sayles / Invision for GRB Entertainment via AP file

In my life, there were people I personally knew at school and in my inner circle who verbally abused me. But then there were also complete strangers from all around the world using social media to deride me, degrade me and even worse; some people threatened my life.

Social platforms can really dehumanize the targets of online abuse. For instance, I once met someone who had bullied me online, and she told me to my face that she hadn’t ever considered that I was actually a real, living, breathing human being. Her actions were, she said, all about venting her own sadness and aiming it, sort of ethereally, at me. I can almost understand that sometimes, when someone is in pain themselves, they are not able to comprehend the level of hurt they are causing others. But that doesn’t excuse their behavior, it merely explains where change needs to happen.

People still say hateful things about me, but it happens less often these days. And, as an adult, it is easier for me to maintain a sense of perspective. I do understand now that bullying also says so much about the pain of the bully; no one will ever bully others if they feel good enough themselves.

In the music I write now, I talk about feeling good about yourself because I finally learned that I cannot control any single other person’s behavior. What I can control is my ability to love myself and to take care of myself.

It is increasingly obvious to me that every single one of us is experiencing pain, and trying to deal with it.

It is increasingly obvious to me that every single one of us is experiencing pain, and trying to deal with it in some way or another. And I know it is important for people to have the opportunity to express their hurt and anger in a constructive way. But causing yet more hurt and pain in others is not constructive: It recreates that famous “chain of pain,” and it’s that cycle which we have to stop. I refer to some of this in the lyrics of my song "The Great Divide."

Internet bullying is not inevitable, if we allow ourselves to learn a bit more and stand up for others and what’s right. In my own online community, I do see people standing up to the bullies and saying “No, that is not acceptable here, go somewhere else with your hate.” And I’m seeing people bravely speaking up about how they have been bullied and hurt, to try to give other people hope that things can get better.

That’s why I’ve chosen to add my voice to the chorus. Nobody needs to suffer in silence, like I did, for so many years. Talk to someone who can help, whether that’s a friend, a trusted adult or a mental health professional. Whatever a bully is saying about you is wrong. It didn’t feel that way when I was 13 and people were writing about how awful and undeserving I was, but I now know they were wrong.

Rebecca Black was thrust into a media maelstrom in 2011 after a novelty video was uploaded to YouTube and went viral. The now 20-year-old singer-songwriter and YouTube personality has returned with the release of her long-awaited debut EP, RE/BL.

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