Riddhi Oswal, who is due to speak at the event alongside her sister Vasundhara in Stockholm on Monday, wants to help empower young people to open up about cyberbullying amid growing concern over the corrosive effect of social media on teenage mental health.
The 17-year-old, who is of Indian heritage but attended a Swiss boarding school, said her own experiences of bullying in her early teenage years had inspired her to set up the ‘Stop The B’ organisation – the world’s first youth-led anti-bullying enterprise.
She will address a crowd of politicians, scientists and policymakers to tell them social media giants must implement changes on their platforms to safeguard teenage mental health.
Speaking to the Standard ahead of the conference, she told of the horrific experience of dealing with verbal abuse and bullying while at school – which left her feeling “completely helpless”.
“The attacks came in many forms, from name calling or racist abuse to social exclusion and public humiliation, it was relentless,” she says.
Riddhi later transferred to another school, but it failed to put a stop to the bullying.
“Before I had even left my old school, other students were circulating rumours about me to the students at my new school and saying nasty things,” she continued.
“In one WhatsApp group a 13-year-old picture of me was circulating with me alongside racist descriptions. I felt like I was being mobbed.”
The StopTheB Instagram account was set up by Riddhi and Vasundhara last year and has since accumulated over 25,000 followers. They have received hundreds of DMs on Instagram and emails from teenagers around the world, with many describing horrific bullying experiences which left them wanting to take their own lives.
“Riddhi had a support system which helped her get through this, but we realised that so many children did not,” says Vasundhara, who now acts as a manager for her sister. “So we wanted to create a platform whereby children could reach out.”
With many cyber-bullying efforts led by adults, Riddhi emphasised the importance of the platform being youth-led. “We want young people to talk to us and feel as if we are all in this together,” she adds.
The conference comes amid renewed scrutiny of the toxic business practices of social media platforms.
Last week, former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen said the firm’s “own research says the bullying follows children home” and warned that the platform is “hurting the most vulnerable among us.”
Riddhi and Vasundhara want platforms to take more action to protect children. Among the policies they suggest is a time-limit on WhatsApp group chats for children, which they claim would help to reduce abuse.
“When you’re on WhatsApp, you’ve got a screen to hide behind. And when you’re typing you feel a disconnect with the person you’re talking to,” Riddhi says. “You’re protected from your own actions.”
She adds: “You feel so helpless. All you see is a few buttons and a few names – no one can see what you’re feeling. Your vulnerability is heightened.”
Bullying is the key driver of suicidal behaviour among young people across the world, according to a study led by international scientists and published in The Lancet last year. It found that one in eight youngsters across the globe had displayed suicidal behaviours, with bullying strongly linked with suicide attempts.
“Unfortunately, I feel like bullying isn’t taken seriously until someone dies,” says Vasundhara. “Before someone dies, it just isn’t important enough.”
Riddhi and Vasundhara hope to eventually turn StopTheB account into an NGO which will offer professional help to young people affected by cyberbullying. “We want to show people that things can change,” adds Riddhi.
But the pair are both busy on other projects too – Riddhi has just released her first single ‘Top Guy on her own independent music label and Visundhara is the Finance Director of the largest industrial ethanol plant in Africa.
“People talk a lot about climate change and other political issues, but our generation is going to have to fix these problems in the future,” Roddhi says. “If we can’t even support each other, we will never be able to fix anything.”