Bullying is something many people think happens between kids on the playground. But in today’s social media-centric world, bullying has moved into cyberspace -- and it’s not only between kids. Whether it’s a political argument between Facebook “friends” or in the comments section of a controversial article, adults are increasingly finding themselves targets of online harassment.
Studies suggest that about 40% of adults have been bullied or harassed online. The most common forms of cyberbullying (technically called cyber harassment when between adults) include offensive name-calling or purposeful embarrassment. More intense -- and emotionally damaging -- forms include physical threats, sexual harassment, and stalking. About 1 in 4 women aged 18 to 24 report being stalked or sexually harassed on the Internet.
Researchers believe cyberbullying can be even more hurtful, psychologically, than physical bullying. One reason: “Targets often do not know who the bully is, or why they are being targeted,” explains Sameer Hinduja, PhD, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center. “The aggressor can cloak his or her identity behind a computer or cellphone using anonymous email addresses or pseudonymous screen names.”
Plus, online harassment incidents can quickly go viral, Hinduja says. With just a few keystrokes or clicks of a mouse, many people -- in a school, in a town, in the world -- can get involved or at least find out about the attack. Finally, “the fact that there is a measure of anonymity, and that it is easier to be cruel using typed words rather than spoken words face-to-face, also contributes to the problem,” Hinduja says.
One writer, age 28, was harassed online after penning a story on potential drawbacks of a vegetarian diet in a popular publication. A YouTube vlogger, who is vegan, posted a video in response in which he mocked the article, called her derogatory names, and even included death threats. He even encouraged his followers to send her hate mail with more threats and disparaging statements.
Unsurprisingly, this kind of harassment took its toll. “I cried. I felt really anxious. I was definitely scared,” she recalls. She felt distracted when she would go out with friends, and whenever she had a lull at work, thoughts about the online vitriol would crop up. Eventually, the hateful comments and emails subsided, but she still revisits the trauma to this day.
On WebMD’s Mental Health message boards, an anonymous user reported her own disturbing experience with cyberbullying and how it made her feel. “He keeps writing things about me on Facebook and even is threatening to write blogs about me on the internet with embarrassing photos," she wrote. "Other people are joining in. It really makes me feel like there is no point in even trying at life ... I just feel depressed all the time from when I wake up until I go to sleep, and I can't sleep because I don't know what they are going write next.”
Several other women we spoke with were among the 25% of women who have been stalked online. After meeting an older man at an event for her university’s alumni, one young woman in New York City started receiving 5-7 emails per day from him, until she finally blocked his email. After that, he sent a threatening Facebook message, warning her that she “didn’t want to make" him angry, "or there would be consequences.” He also told her he knew exactly where she lived. Once she blocked him on Facebook, the messages stopped, but that didn’t stop her from feeling scared, even unable to eat or sleep. She later found out he was a known “troll” with many complaints from others about his online actions.
How to Handle It in a Healthy Way
Cyberbullying isn’t easy to shrug off. It can cause long-lasting psychological damage, and even drive people to suicidal thoughts or actions. While most targets of cyberbullying do not become suicidal, research suggests they are more likely to have symptoms of depression than those who have been physically bullied. People who deal with online harassment may also feel sad, irritable, anxious and hopeless. They may lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, start to sleep more or sleep less, and change their eating patterns. Studies also suggest that the psychological distress can lead to physical symptoms, such as stomach pain and headaches.
It’s easy to feel alone when you’re harassed online. But it’s important not to isolate yourself, and to seek support instead. Talk about it with a friend you trust, your partner, a mental health professional, or your company's HR if you believe a co-worker may be involved.
It may also be helpful to keep in mind why the person is bullying others to begin with. “Cyberbullying is related to low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, anger, frustration, and a variety of other emotional and psychological problems,” Hinduja says.
Finally, while being cyberbullied can bring on unwanted distress, you can learn how to handle the stress in constructive ways, such as eating healthy foods, working out, or trying yoga or meditation. Reducing your stress can make it easier to see difficult situations clearly and make them easier to deal with.