Emily Moore: First victim of cyber bullies opens up on risks kids face online

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Emily Moore

Emily became the first official victim of cyber bullying (Image: Adam Gasson / SWNS.COM)

It is only when the red blotches appear on her pale skin that you get a sense of the terrible trauma she went through as a teenager. Ten years ago, Emily became the first official victim of cyber bullying when her tormentor Keeley Houghton was convicted of making death threats against her on Facebook. Today, Emily, 28, tells for the first time how she overcame the ordeal and went on to marry her childhood sweetheart, travel the world and become a creative producer at a leading fashion company.

But she is also speaking out to warn that, a decade on, few lessons have been learnt, teenagers continue to be harassed relentlessly on the internet and how “Trolling is worse than it has ever been.”

Emily, from Malvern, Worcestershire, adds: “Facebook was arrogant back then and it seems to be even more arrogant now.

“I hope to have children one day and, when I do, I am going to be scared to let them on social media as there isn’t enough being done to protect them.

“Teenagers are being bullied, harassed and tormented all the time and little is being done to keep them safe. It is a million times worse than it was back then, yet companies like Facebook seem unable – or are unwilling – to put a stop to it.

“I know it will cost money to clean up the internet but it is so important we keep young people safe. After all, what price can you put on a child’s life?” In August 2009, Houghton, then 18, was front page news after becoming the first person to be locked up for carrying out a campaign of hate on the internet.

She had pleaded guilty to harassment and was handed a three-month sentence at a young offenders’ institution and banned from contacting her victim for five years.

The case brought trolling into the public eye before the word became synonymous with online abuse. It was partly due to Emily that Facebook introduced its report button, which now has 2.3 billion active monthly users, to allow people to flag up inappropriate posts and pictures.

The vicious Facebook campaign against Emily

The vicious Facebook campaign against Emily (Image: Adam Gasson / SWNS.COM)

Her ordeal was cited in the digital section of the 2013 Defamation Act and teachers still talk about what she went through when they educate pupils about bullying on the net.

But Emily still worries about what teenagers are going through today. “There are still so many bullies and trolls out there and social media is so popular,” she says.

“Back then you had to go home and log on to your PC to get on to Facebook.

“Now most children have smartphones and they are swapping pictures and sending each other messages on sites such as Instagram and Snapchat all the time.

“There must be so much cruelty and abuse that goes unreported, it is terrifying. I’d hate to be a 14-year-old right now.”

Emily’s descent into digital hell started when she was in her second year of secondary school when classmate Houghton developed an intense hatred of her.

“It started with name-calling and then she began spitting at me, pulling my hair or following me and treading on the back of my heels as I walked home,” says Emily.

“Some days there would be a pack of 10 or 15 them – Keeley and her friends – waiting for me at the top of my road. It got to the point that my friends didn’t want to walk next to me because they were worried about getting picked on.

“The school didn’t know how to deal with the bullying at first. I remember walking home one day and Keeley following behind shouting ‘Emily is a sl*g.’ I think it was because I was wearing eyeliner.

“I kept reporting them and they kept getting into trouble but it only seemed to wind them up. I was an extrovert and I wanted to show that I would not be cowed.

“I eventually managed to get four of them expelled and I was so scared to go to school after that. On the first day back in Year 10, when I was 14, I walked out of school and there were about 40 people waiting for me. They were Keeley’s friends – cousins, boyfriends, everything.

“I started walking and one best friend stayed with me despite what was about to happen. One pulled my hair and it turned into a fight that spilled into a driveway. My head was smashed into a brick wall three times and my finger was broken.

“This woman came out of her house and took me inside so I could call the police and I ended up in A&E. I remember seeing clumps of my hair on the floor as they had pulled so much out – it was terrifying.”

Keeley was convicted of assault but that did not stop the bullying and before long it spilled over to the internet.

By now it was 2006 and Facebook had been opened up for public use (previously it had only been for university students in the US). Emily and her friends were using it, alongside other social media sites such as Myspace and the now-defunct Bebo.

Emily with husband Justin

Emily now happy with husband Justin (Image: NC)

“Keeley and her friends were using social media to openly discuss how they were going to get me and I started obsessively checking it to see what they were up to,” says Emily. “At the same time my mental health had taken a turn for the worse and I was going to school three times a week at most. I was so scared what might happen. I began feeling like my chest was tight all the time and I often broke out into rashes all over my body.”

As Emily talks in a cafe inside the Malvern Theatres complex, the same stark red blotches appear on her neck.

“I still get the rash when I talk about it,” she says, placing a hand self-consciously against her throat. “I don’t think you ever fully recover from something like this. I still suffer from anxiety and dread that I might bump into them when I go out.”

In 2007, Keeley was convicted of smashing her victim’s front door in another unprovoked attack but the police seemed powerless to stop the abuse.

Says Emily: “I would often phone the police when I would see the girls waiting for me. They would say they could not do anything until something actually happened.”

Aged 18, Emily was attending Worcester Sixth Form when Houghton, who was then unemployed, went for her again at the Vaults pub.

The police questioned the bully but did not arrest her and Houghton later logged on to Facebook to publicly warn of a final, murderous revenge.

“I only found out about the death threat when my friend told me about it,” says Emily. “I took it very seriously because Keeley had done so many crazy things. I was literally shaking with fear.”

Keeley Houghton

Keeley Houghton on ITV’s This Morning in 2013, (Image: Ken McKay/REX/Shutterstock)

Worcester magistrates court heard that Houghton had written: “Keeley is going to murder the *****. She is an actress.What a ****ing liberty. Emily ****head Moore.”

A distraught Emily asked Facebook to take down the threat but they initially refused and did not even respond to her complaints.

“During that time her friends created a Facebook page called ‘Keeley Houghton is not a bully’,” says Emily. “They wrote horrible things about me and painted her as a victim.

“I was in complete shock that Facebook would allow them to do that during an active trial.”

Emily escaped the trauma by backpacking across Australia, New Zealand and Asia the following year.

She studied drama and performance art at Worcester University and in 2016 she married Justin, the boyfriend she met while she was still at school.

Around the same time she almost bumped into Houghton – who later went on the This Morning show on ITV to apologise for her behaviour – at a Poundland store.

“I dropped my bags and left,” she says. “I was not scared but I did not want to speak to her.”

Adds Emily: “I still use Facebook because it’s a good way of staying in touch and to stop would be accepting, in a small way, that the bullies have won. But my message to the social media companies is that it’s time to make the internet safe.

“If trolling or bullying is happening on their websites, they should immediately step in and ban the people responsible.

“It might cost money to stop the abuse but no one should have to go through what I went through. I also want to say how important it is that people being bullied reach out and get help.

“So many young people end up taking their own lives after being tormented at school or on social media. I never went down that route, thankfully, but I do know how alone and vulnerable you can feel when you are being picked on.

“It’s really important you tell someone what is happening, whether that is a parent, a teacher, a professional or the police – and social media companies have a responsibility to help too.

“I hope that in five years we can look back and wonder how we ever allowed things to get as bad as they are now.”

Anyone suffering from bullying can call the Mind charity’s infoline on 0300 123 3393

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