Friday, March 23, 2012

Teen Internet Love Gone Wrong - He's a She

By Helen Weathers

(U.K.) Fourteen-year-old Emily Marabella’s heart skipped a beat when she chanced upon the profile of ‘Mr Gorgeous’ on an internet social-networking site. With his long fringe sweeping out from under a beanie hat, chiselled jaw and pretty-boy looks, he was the very image of her teen idol, Justin Bieber.

Never in her wildest dreams did Emily think someone as adorable as ‘Mr Gorgeous’ would be attracted to a shy, self-conscious girl like her. So, when he replied to her first message, directing her to a YouTube clip of him singing the Bruno Mars’ song ‘Just the Way You Are’, Emily was thrilled.

It marked the start of an eight-month, long-distance chatroom romance, during which the handsome teenager was soon telling Emily she was perfect, with beautiful eyes and hair.

His internet messages saying ‘I love you’ and ‘I can’t stop thinking about you’ were music to the ears of a girl who fretted about her weight and suffered from the chronic skin condition, eczema.

Emily, now 15, says: ‘I’d never been in a proper relationship or done well with boys, so to be told I was really nice looking made me feel so happy. When he said he loved me, I wanted to scream it from the rooftops.’

Indeed, Emily did tell everyone, proudly showing pictures of her new boyfriend — who told her his name was Matt — to her family and friends at school in her home town of Market Harborough in Leicestershire.

Only Matt didn’t exist. To Emily’s acute distress and embarrassment, her dream boyfriend turned out to be girl called Chloe; a fact she discovered only after they’d met up for the first time in October 2010.

By then Emily had held hands with ‘Matt’, hugged ‘him’ and allowed her new ‘boyfriend’ to briefly kiss her. It is now 18 months since the day all Emily’s dreams were ‘shattered’ in what she describes as ‘the worst thing that has ever happened to me’. She has tried to put it behind her, but the memories flooded back last week following the conviction of Gemma Barker, another girl who pretended to be a boy on internet sites.

In contrast, Emily’s ‘boyfriend’ Matt — in reality a 16-year-old girl from Surrey — has never been charged, and this week was still to be found on certain internet networking sites, including Twitter, pretending to be a boy.

When Emily’s parents called the police, they were told no offence had been committed as no sexual assault had taken place. It is not against the law for a girl to dress as a boy, or indeed to create a false internet profile. ‘It is amazing that there is no law to stop people from creating a fake identity in this way and then using it to deceive someone else,’ says Emily’s mother Julia, 48, a personal trainer.

‘At which point can the police prosecute? Do they have to wait for more inappropriate behaviour? This has absolutely shattered my daughter emotionally.’

Emily and her mother have agreed to speak out to warn other girls of the dangers of being taken in by fake internet profiles, even when parents do everything in their power to protect their children from harm.

For even Emily’s cautious parents were initially fooled. Not content to judge their daughter’s relationship with ‘Matt’ on pictures alone, Emily’s parents permitted the internet friendship only after first checking that Emily’s crush wasn’t actually some predatory older man posing as a teenager.

They spoke to ‘him’ on the phone, saw ‘him’ on their laptop webcam and vetted his messages for sexual content, but found nothing untoward. As Julia says, it seemed like a ‘harmless penpal relationship’ and seeing their daughter blossom under the intense light of ‘Matt’s’ attention was a delight to witness.

Emily says: ‘I had a very low opinion of myself at the time, so for Matt to find me attractive was amazing. I told all my friends at school and showed them his picture. Matt told me, “one day I want to marry you”. It was so perfect.’

After five months chatting online, the teenagers arranged to meet up at Market Harborough train station during the school summer holidays in 2010. Julia says: ‘I was fine with her meeting Matt, provided we met him, too.’

Emily arrived at the station with two friends for safety, and Julia planned to meet them all once ‘Matt’ had arrived. He never showed up.

‘I felt like a fool,’ says Emily, who has two older brothers, Oliver, 22, and Edward, 20. I was so angry, but when I contacted him afterwards he told me he had a phobia of trains and was scared. I was so head over heels in love with Matt, I would have believed anything he said.’

Emily and Matt arranged to meet again during the October half-term. This time Emily’s father Ian, 47, a driver, took her to the station to meet Matt, who was dropped off by car by his grandmother and auntie. Matt certainly looked like a typical teenage boy in his checked shirt and baggy jeans, but Ian was suspicious.

Julia recalls: ‘Ian phoned me and said, “I need you to get here as quickly as possible, there’s something not quite right”. I rushed to the station in a panic to find Emily in the car and Matt sitting on the pavement with his head in his hands.

‘Ian came over to me and said: “I think it’s a girl, it’s not a boy” and I said: “What on earth makes you think that?” and he told me Matt’s auntie had said: “I hope she behaves herself,” before driving off. I knelt down beside Matt, and said: “Ian’s got a bit of a problem, I know this is really embarrassing, but can you tell me what your name is?”. He said “Matt”, and when I asked why his auntie had said “she”, Matt explained he had a twin sister and his auntie kept getting them confused. I kept looking at Matt and it was really hard to tell. I thought: “You look like a boy”. In the car we kept asking questions and that’s when Matt told us his sister Chloe was his twin. Stupid as it sounds, I believed him. Emily didn’t have any suspicions at all, and was so embarrassed.’

That afternoon, Julia and Ian took Emily, her friend and Matt to the park to walk the family’s dogs and, at one point, the three teenagers ran off together. It was then, away from the watchful eyes of parents, that Emily says Matt kissed her. But by then, Julia and Ian were becoming more convinced that Matt really was a girl.

‘It was a windy day,’ says Julia. ‘And as the wind blew the heavy fringe away from his face, I thought: “I can definitely see a girl in you now,”’ says Julia. ‘But what could we do? We couldn’t just abandon her or turf her out because she was only 15 and her gran wasn’t due to pick her up until 6pm. Even though I was upset, angry, annoyed, I felt responsible for her.

‘I didn’t want Matt alone with Emily because my daughter was in total denial and I didn’t want any more kissing, so we watched them like hawks. Heaven knows what might have happened if Emily had met Matt alone. I would have been absolutely mortified if there had been any touching.’

At 6pm, the Marabellas drove Matt back to the station to be collected by his grandmother and auntie. 'I’ve never seen anyone run away so quickly, the car hadn’t even had time to stop. Matt was desperate to get away from us,’ says Julia. ‘I ran after Matt because I was angry and upset and I felt desperately sorry for Emily that he hadn’t said goodbye, so before they could all zoom off, I stopped their car. ‘The elderly aunt and grandma were sitting there and they asked: “Has she behaved herself?” I was so dumbfounded. I just didn’t know what to say because they clearly didn’t have a clue. Then, they turned round and said: “I hope you have been a good girl, Chloe,” and I felt physically sick and incredibly foolish. I was too shocked to say anything. I went back to our car and said: “Oh my God, Ian, Emily, it’s a definitely a girl,” and that’s when Emily’s world fell apart.’

Emily continues: ‘I burst into tears, saying: “No, it can’t be,” because I still loved this person. I just didn’t want to believe it, because you can’t go straight from loving someone to hating them. I couldn’t think of life without this person.’

That evening, Emily messaged Matt, demanding answers.

‘I told Matt: “I know you are a girl,” but Matt denied it and still insisted she was a boy and that Chloe was her twin sister,’ says Emily, who immediately ceased all contact. I felt I’d lost absolutely everything. No one could understand how I felt. It’s the most horrible thing I’ve ever been through in my life. Even now, it still haunts me.’

As well as contacting the police, Julia reported the case to various internet sites in the hope of blocking “Matt’s” profile, but because no criminal offence has been committed, there was apparently nothing that could be done to stop it.

‘There may be no offence being committed, but to me the deception is still there,’ says Julia. ‘Just because “Matt” is a teenage girl and isn’t a 40-year-old man doesn’t mean it’s not wrong. I have no idea what is going on in this girl’s head, but she must need some form of psychological help if she has to pretend to be a boy. Since this has happened Emily’s whole attitude, her behaviour, her whole perception of boys, her trust, have all been changed. She became introverted and depressed, saying: “No one will find me attractive now. I can only get a girl, not a boy.” Her eczema flared up so badly, her school thought she was self-harming because she’d scratched her skin raw.’ Emily adds: ‘The day Matt became Chloe, I changed from the nicest person to someone who just doesn’t care any more.’

When the Mail spoke to Chloe/Matt’s 76-year-old grandmother, with whom the teenager lives, she said Chloe had been deeply affected by her grandfather’s death in 2009, which had triggered an episode of deep depression.

She added that Chloe’s parents split up when she was three, and that her granddaughter came to live with her when Chloe’s mother couldn’t cope with the child’s challenging behaviour.

‘Since all this happened, Chloe is being treated for depression and is now doing well again,’ said the grandmother, who admits she is not computer literate and therefore had no idea that Chloe was — and still is — posing on internet chatrooms as a boy.

The day after we spoke to Chloe’s grandmother the Facebook profile for “Matt” was taken down, although it remained on another site.

‘She’s a good girl and behaving herself now. We’ve explained to her that she will get into trouble with the police if she continues to pretend to be someone else, which I think she understands. She was very close to her grandfather, and when he died she became depressed and just didn’t want to be herself any more. She just wanted to be someone else.’

Some names have been changed for legal reasons.

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