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I didn’t want to be a mother who keeps tabs on her kid’s phone or monitors her texts. I trusted her to be careful. I wanted my daughter to grow up feeling unguarded and free. Perhaps it was because my mother hovered over me. During my adolescence, I felt like I was under surveillance. When I rifled through a cupboard or grabbed a snack from the fridge, she used to watch me. I’m sure she occasionally ransacked my room when I wasn’t home. Living with my mother was like hiding from the secret police.

Yet, I’ve gone too far the other way, I guess. Last month, I got a call from the principal at my daughter’s school. Did I know that my 12 year old was receiving texts from an unknown man on Instagram? Did I know that she was being threatened? The texts were sexual and explicit. One of my daughter’s friends had reported it. The principal’s words stunned me. I stood in my kitchen holding the phone, unable to breathe. It was like being sucker punched in the solar plexus. How could I not know about this? In that moment, I ranked myself high on the bad-mother scorecard.

That evening, the police showed up at our door. They were from the human trafficking division. They suspected a pedophile was disguising himself as a young teen and was pursuing my daughter. They interrogated her for about an hour. My daughter, eyes large and terrified, answered their questions. She was wrapped in a grey comforter. She sat frozen and stiff on the couch, barely moving. Her eyes never met mine. When they did, she looked away. Her words were faint and breathless. She told the police that she asked the unknown man to leave her alone. He told her he would tell the boys in her class that she had been sexual with him if she didn’t co-operate. She was scared to block his texts. She was crying as she said it.

When the police left, we deleted Instagram from her phone. I set up some counselling appointments. I tried to remember to breathe. I decided not to probe.

A week later, my phone rang. It was the principal again.

“We know who’s been using Instagram to bully your daughter,” she said. “It’s two of her girlfriends in her class.” She told me the girls’ names. She told me one girl had confessed, in tears, to setting up a fake Instagram account, posting a photo of a good-looking boy as the profile shot and sending inappropriate messages. Her words hit me like a bomb going off next to me, like a meteor falling in my back yard. The meanness was so premeditated and devious. It was hard to believe that 12-year-olds had devised such an elaborate plan.

My daughter didn’t believe me. Perhaps the principal was lying. “It couldn’t be my friends,” she said. “What have I done to make them want to hurt me like that?” The level of betrayal was severe. Every member of our family was deeply troubled.

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For weeks, my daughter walked around pale, bug-eyed with a blank look, her usual exuberance extinguished. She cuddled our dog. She refused to talk about the “incident.” The mean girls were suspended from school for a few days and were removed from my daughter’s class. The Crown Prosecutor decided not to press charges because the girls were only 12.

Weeks dragged by. My husband bumped into one of the bullies’ fathers at the school. The man’s eyes filled with tears and his voice shook as he apologized for his daughter’s behaviour. My husband shook his hand.

By this time, everyone in our town knew what had happened. Some mothers from the neighborhood had me over for tea. They invited my daughter for a sleepover with their daughters. They were sympathetic, disgusted and on edge. I could tell they were worried that their own daughters might be the next victims. How had cyber bullying found its way to our sheltered, little village?

Despite their kindness, I wondered if I could trust these women. I wondered if I could trust anyone again. I perched on the edge of the couch with my coat on, sipping water, nodding my head in the appropriate places in the conversation. I felt so outside of them, of everyone, as if I’d landed there from another place and time.

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I did what I always do when I get scared – I read. I read about cyber bullying, teenage group dynamics, shunning, hazing and mean-girl tactics. When I finished the book Odd Girl Out, I was well armed for life in the real world. The mean girl games, I realized, were not unique to teenaged girls. The hurtful strategies were widespread. I’d witnessed adults shunning one another, withholding friendly gestures or acts of common courtesy and playing manipulative games. Why do people use social isolation to hurt each other, I wondered? Was it to make themselves feel better, superior, more popular? Was it to mask their own social awkwardness? I despised this about our species. I felt rage flare inside of me.

A month later, I was at my yoga class, still in a dismal state. We all go for coffee afterward. It’s our weekly ritual. We’ve known each other for years. I noticed one younger woman sitting alone on the bench, putting on her boots. I saw her glance over at our group. Then she looked away. I realized that I had seen her before, many times, always by herself and I’d never given her a second thought. Without thinking, I walked right up to her. I asked her if she wanted to grab a coffee with us. Her eyes brightened, she seemed surprised. Her mouth curved into a hesitant smile as she nodded, “Yes!”

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Joanne Nixon lives in Port Perry, Ont.

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