Trolls and Toxicity: Surviving Online Harassment

Girl grows sad after reading a message from a cyberbully.Online harassment, sometimes called cyberbullying or cyber abuse, has become more prevalent as internet use has increased. According to 2017 statistics, 41% of American adults have experienced online harassment.

These figures increase when looking at cyberbullying in youth. In a 2014 review, between 20% and 40% of adolescents said they experienced some type of online harassment. However, since not everyone who experiences harassment reports it, the actual prevalence of harassment may be somewhat higher.

Online harassment can have serious mental health consequences at any age. Just because the abuse happens online does not make it any less real.

Types of Online Harassment

Among adults who’ve experienced harassment, 18% report serious harassment such as stalking, threats, or sustained harassment campaigns. Women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment and receive sexually explicit images. More than half of women between ages 18 and 29 report receiving unwanted sexual images online. Research also suggests gender and ethnic minorities experience online harassment at increased rates.

Online harassment can take many forms. Common types include:

  • Trolling: Making some type of negative or hurtful comments meant to upset, humiliate, or discredit someone.
  • Message bombing: Sending an extreme number of texts, chats, instant messages, or emails with the intent of blocking access to the account. This is often done with the help of bots.
  • Doxxing: Sharing someone’s personal information online, such as a phone number or home address. Sometimes this is done to facilitate identity theft. Other times, information is shared so that people can harass the individual in physical spaces as well as online.
  • Revenge porn: Sharing sexually explicit photographs or videos of an individual without their consent. Around 41 states have laws against revenge porn.
  • Swatting: Making a false report to the police about illegal activity occurring at someone’s home. At best, this can be extremely inconvenient. At worst, it can put the person swatted, and their family or roommates, in danger.

The Serious Mental Health Effects of Online Harassment

Today’s society is grounded in technology. It’s often difficult, if not impossible, to avoid using internet, email, or social media apps each day for work, school, or personal reasons. But people who have dealt with online harassment may feel anxiety and stress when they have to do these ordinary activities. This distress can lower one’s performance at school or work. Serious or persistent harassment can contribute to depression, suicidal thoughts, and even suicide attempts.

When our sense of emotional safety in the world is compromised, so too is our psychological health.When our sense of emotional safety in the world is compromised, so too is our psychological health,” Allison Abrams, LCSW-R says. Some groups may be particularly vulnerable to harassment. “Those with certain risk factors, such as a history of trauma, previous depressive episodes, or a family history of depression, etc., are especially vulnerable. In some of these cases, online harassment can be a trigger for a clinical depressive episode. Being humiliated publicly can engender or certainly worsen feelings of worthlessness, isolation, and low self-esteem—all contributing factors in clinical depression.”

One 2017 study looked at the effects of cyberstalking among the 100 individuals. The study participants reported feelings of fear, anxiety, depression, and helplessness. Many of them changed jobs or altered their daily lives significantly as a result of cyberstalking.

Other research suggests 40% of people who experience online harassment develop lower self-esteem. Around 30% of people worry their lives may be in danger.

Multiple studies have shown the risk for mental health symptoms increase in youth who have experienced cyberbullying or online harassment. These may include depression, isolation, anxiety, and dissociation, among others. Adolescents who experience online harassment are three times as likely to have suicidal thoughts.

Negative effects may worsen if harassment continues, but victims of online abuse often find it hard to get help.

Reporting Online Harassment

Not everyone reports cyberbullying or harassment. Those who do often aren’t believed, which can compound the distress they experience. Even when people who report harassment are believed, free speech is protected by law, so a legal gray area surrounds certain types of harassment. This can limit the actions legal authorities can take.

Attempting to report online harassment can be frustrating when bullying and threats aren’t taken seriously. These are real concerns, and they should be treated as such, especially if they’re having a negative impact on your health.

Many states do have laws about cyberbullying and online harassment, so it’s still a good idea to report harassment. While it may be discouraging if authorities don’t respond and the harassment continues, violent threats in particular should always be reported.

If you’re experiencing online harassment, consider taking these steps:

  • Reach out to the site or platform administrator. Larger sites such as Facebook and Twitter often have built-in mechanisms for reporting harassment. For smaller sites, you may need to reach out directly to the website’s administrator. These options can help get the person blocked and prevent them from contacting you again. Save the messages or emails you send and any replies you get from the administrator.
  • Avoid contacting the person who’s bothering you. Don’t interact with or engage with them in any way. If you know the person, you could ask a parent, friend, or someone you trust to reach out to the person and ask them to stop messaging you. This could help in some situations, but in others it may be best to let law enforcement handle the situation.
  • Report the person to law enforcement. The officer you speak to may be able to give you more guidance on how to proceed. Continue reporting any further incidents.
  • If you believe the person harassing you is breaking the law, you may wish to involve a lawyer.
  • Seek social and professional support. This can help decrease the negative impact of online harassment.

Coping with Online Harassment

Research indicates many people who experience online harassment get little support from law enforcement professionals or community organizations, such as their schools or universities. Lacking support can greatly increase the chances that online harassment will have long-term mental health consequences.

You may feel inclined to avoid the internet after experiencing harassment. Doing so could help reduce distress and may help you cope with the experience. But avoiding social media could also make it more difficult to talk to friends and family, which can lead to isolation. If you choose to stop using the internet for a time, let your friends and family know what’s going on and work out a plan to stay in touch so you don’t become isolated.

It’s often difficult to share distressing experiences such as harassment or online abuse. But friends and family can offer support and advice, so talking to them may help more than keeping the situation to yourself.

Practicing good self-care can also help you cope. Making time to take care of yourself is always a good idea, but self-care becomes even more important when you’re in distress. If you feel anxious, overwhelmed, or angry, try:

  • Taking a walk
  • Journaling about what you’re feeling
  • Joining an online harassment support group
  • Getting a massage
  • Practicing relaxation techniques

Another part of self-care is taking care of your emotional health. You may find it easier to deal with online harassment when working with a therapist. They can offer compassion, support, and understanding in a safe space. It’s also possible they’ll have suggestions on how to deal with harassment. At the very least, they’ll be able to listen and help you develop strategies to cope with your distress.

If you’re experiencing online harassment and aren’t already working with a therapist, GoodTherapy’s directory is a good place to start your search. You’re not alone, so don’t wait to reach out for help.

References

  1. Airov, T. (2017, May 21). Cyberbullying linked with range of mental health effects. Retrieved from https://www.psychcongress.com/article/cyberbullying-linked-range-mental-health-effects
  2. Culp-Ressler, T. (2014, June 11). The real life consequences of online harassment. ThinkProgress. Retrieved from https://thinkprogress.org/the-real-life-consequences-of-online-harassment-5c8e9547a93e
  3. Defining “online harassment”: A glossary of terms. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://onlineharassmentfieldmanual.pen.org/resource-guide-to-combat-online-harassment/defining-online-harassment-a-glossary-of-terms
  4. Duggan, M. (2017, July 11). Online harassment 2017. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017
  5. Nixon, C. L. (2014, August 1). Current perspectives: The impact of cyberbullying on adolescent health. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 5, 143-158. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4126576
  6. Worsley, J. D., Wheatcroft, J., M., Short, E., & Corcoran, R. (2017, May 23). Victims’ voices: Understanding the emotional impact of cyberstalking and individuals’ coping responses. SAGE Journals, 7(2). Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/2158244017710292

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