For those of us living in a small town, stuck at home with young children or limited by health problems, social media literally opens up the world, creating opportunities that we couldn’t have dreamt of just a few decades ago. We can keep in touch with distant friends, family overseas and make new international friends or colleagues with shared interests. All good stuff, right???
…all great inventions can be a force for good or ill….
Yet, social media has developed much quicker than the laws to govern it making it all too easy to Cyberstalk, Harass, Bully, Impersonate, Troll, Groom, and to do so anonymously. I know, because I have been targeted, and it is far from pleasant (yeah, I shouldn't admit this and 'feed the Trolls'….but as a psychologist I like to understand human behaviour).
A little research reveals that the prevalence of online abuse is on the increase. Recent studies suggest that 56% of young people report witnessing others being bullied, 42% have felt unsafe*, 70% of 18-to-24-year-olds have experienced harassment and 26% of young women report being stalked online (Pew Research Centre Study). Most of us find ourselves asking, why does anyone think it is okay to behave in this way?
One study found that trolling correlates positively with the “Dark Tetrad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism" with the authors concluding that “cyber-trolling appears to be an Internet manifestation of everyday sadism.” (Buckels et al, 2014). Sometimes the dark intent is all too obvious.
But it isn't always quite so black and white: it's not just a minority of ‘sadists’ ruining the internet for the rest of us. The prevalence of this problem suggests that all too often the problem lies among us. While most of us would not resort to a campaign of online terror, at some point the boundary between right and wrong becomes a bit more blurry. For example, during an impassioned debate about politics or human rights or sport it can be all too easy to dehumanise the “other”, in the echo chamber of the internet, where normal rules don’t apply and nobody seems to hold us accountable.
Psychologists suggest the Online Disinhibition Effect accounts for an increase in ‘acting out’ online. Suler (2004) names six primary factors leading to this disinhibition: You don't know me (anonymity); You can't see me (the internet provides a shield); See you later (we can dip in and out and leave if things get tricky); It's all in my head (lacking any social cues, such as facial expressions or eye contact, it just doesn’t seem real); It's just a game (a form of escapism and fantasy); Your rules don't apply here (a lack of normal social rules and restrictions mean that people feel less accountable for their behaviour). Combine negative behaviours (e.g. gossip, abuse, control, revenge) and feelings (e.g. hatred, shame, anger, hurt, jealousy) with Online Disinhibition and you make a pretty nasty cocktail.
When someone is emboldened by such toxic disinhibition the impact for their victim is no less than being abused in any other way (maybe worse if the perpetrator remains unknown, has access to you at home and can target you at any time). The all too harsh reality of virtual hate can include depression, low self esteem, anxiety, self-harm and can even lead to suicide.
Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is watching you.
One of my favourite things about social media is that empowers us, gifting us all a voice. Yet, with this new power comes a responsibility that perhaps we have struggled to meet. Yes, there will likely always be a minority who lack empathy and are prepared to use the online world as a tool to feel powerful and to abuse others, just as they likely do in the real world. But, for the rest of us, maybe we need to take a bit more collective responsibility for the safety of our online community. Considering how much time our kids spend in this virtual world, surely this is the precedent we want to set for them.
What can you do to protect yourself and loved ones online?
-Take every possible action to keep safe online, maximise privacy and moderation settings.
-Don’t respond to the abuse, often the abuser just wants a reaction, rise above it and often they will move on. Some people have found re-tweeting abusive messages is effective, however try and not engage directly with the abuser.
-Take and keep a screenshot of any abuse and report it to the relevant social media site.
-Block the abuser (although this is difficult if they are acting under a pseudonym).
-Get any information you can about IP addresses (e.g. from email headers or by contacting social media sites).
-New laws mean this behaviour is illegal so if you feel unsafe report it to the police, handing over any evidence. You can get legal advice, some solicitors offer a free initial consultation.
-If it is work related report it to your manager and HR Department.
-If it is school/college/university related report it to your guidance teacher or support staff.
-Bullying and abuse can be distressing so make sure you tell people you care about, get the emotional support that you need and take steps to keep yourself safe.
-Teach your children about online safety and how to treat others online (see links below).
Being more mindful online:
-Try to keep in mind that there is a real person at the other end of your online communications, how would you feel if someone said this to your friend, child or parent?
-Own your behaviour, it doesn’t matter if you post or send messages anonymously, you are still accountable and answerable for your own conduct (and you may well be found out). Would you say this to the person face to face? Would you happily take responsibility for what you have said? If not, you have probably crossed a line.
-What is driving your behaviour? Is there a healthier way to communicate what you are feeling?
-Cool down, the immediacy of social media can lead to reactive behaviour when it might be better to take some time out and think before you press send. Remember you can’t take it back and you will leave an electronic footprint that you are powerless to remove.
Useful Links & Further Reading:
*How to deal with cyberbullying
Kids Safety Online
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
The impact of bullying can last a lifetime: A study of the long term impact of bullying:
This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture by Whitney Phillips