From discovering her son unconscious with a ligature over his head to the lengthy but ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to stop his life support being switched off, Archie Battersbee’s mother has experienced heartbreak that is hard to imagine.
That pain has now been compounded by the recent discovery that Archie was bullied online in the months before the catastrophic brain injury on 7 April last year, she told the Guardian.
Hollie Dance, 47, said that threatening WhatsApp messages targeting her son have been released as part of the disclosure process before next week’s inquest into the 12-year-old’s death on 6 August.
Dance still believes that what happened to Archie was probably the result of copying something online or taking part in the “blackout challenge”. But she said learning of the bullying messages was all the more devastating because of the relentless abuse the family had received since the beginning of the court battle.
“I couldn’t read too much because I was just crying a lot, I wasn’t in a good way,” said Dance of the messages to Archie. “They were threatening to come to his house, knives were mentioned.
“It came as a shock to me, it’s absolutely heartbreaking, especially as right back from April we’ve been trolled so badly, which again is online bullying. There are two family members that have attempted suicide because of the trolling.
“So to think that my little boy had been trolled prior to this and we had no idea whatsoever is absolutely heartbreaking.”
Sources close to Archie’s family told the Guardian that the voice and text messages on WhatsApp went on for months and also contained exhortations for him to kill himself.
Abuse aimed at the family continues and relatives have amassed nearly 20,000 screenshots to date which are being assessed by lawyers and police, said Dance. As an example, she sent one received the day after the interview with the Guardian which had a picture of Archie in his hospital bed superimposed on to a photograph of someone bending over and smiling with the caption: “Do you think he’s dead?”
Dance said family and friends have had their addresses publicised, while posters were put up telling people not to use the dog walking business of Archie’s brother’s girlfriend, Ella Carter. Fighting back tears, she added: “They’ve even trolled a few of Archie’s school friends: ‘Ha ha your friend died,’ things like that. It’s just so evil.
“I can’t see how you wake up in the morning and just want to start picking on someone or tearing somebody’s life apart. We didn’t ask for this limelight, it’s my little boy has lost his life.”
Dance said Archie never spoke to her about the messages he received and because they largely stopped before the fatal incident she does not believe they were linked to it. She said her son was happy, looking forward to his first MMA (mixed martial arts fight), excitedly choosing his ring walk song – the Notorious BIG’s Hypnotize – which would instead be played at his funeral.
“Do I think Archie would have taken his own life? Definitely not,” she says. But she still wants the senders of the threatening messages – their names were redacted on the transcripts she viewed – to be investigated by police.
The abuse aimed at Archie, her enduring belief that online content may have played a part in his death, as well as the vitriol aimed at the family make Dance keen for the inquest to address the issue of online safety, already topical given the online safety bill and Molly Russell’s inquest.
Dance said: “I don’t believe that a 12-year-old all of a sudden starts tying knots around their head like this out of nowhere. He’s seen that somewhere or he’s been told about it.”
At a pre-inquest review, the Essex chief coroner, Lincoln Brookes, citing a police report, said there was “no evidence” Archie was taking part in a “blackout challenge”. Dance, however, was keen to point out that this did not mean he was not doing so; it is known that he viewed TikTok on the day of his death but the details of what he viewed are irretrievable.
“We can’t see and we’re never going to know what he watched,” she said. “It can’t be ruled out that he did an online challenge.”
Dance said that just talking about online challenges had raised awareness. “I know, from the thousands of lovely messages that I’ve had, that parents have sat down their children and checked those children’s social media and stuff so I know that we have saved lives by raising that awareness,” she said.
But she added that talking about online challenges had also brought abuse. “It shouldn’t have ever been about me and my family and friends,” she said. “It should have been about Archie and raising the awareness so that it doesn’t happen to anybody else.”
Steven Horsley, of Simpson Millar solicitors, who is representing Dance at the inquest, said: “No child should be exposed to the kind of violent, threatening and abusive messages which were directed at Archie. Hollie, who has already been through so much, is understandably shaken by the discovery that he was subjected to such hateful bullying and hopes that appropriate action will follow. It is just one of several issues she hopes will be addressed at next week’s inquest.”
• In the UK, the NSPCC offers support to children on 0800 1111, and adults concerned about a child on 0808 800 5000. In the US, call or text the Childhelp hotline on 800-422-4453. In Australia, children, young adults, parents and teachers can contact the Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800, or Bravehearts on 1800 272 831. Other sources of help can be found at Child Helplines International