What is the impact of online shaming and cyberbullying?

Like any form of bullying, there are deep consequences to this treatment of others and it’s impact on both children and adults.

BULLYING BY online ‘mean girls’ can have a deep psychological, social and emotional impact.  (photo credit: TNS)
BULLYING BY online ‘mean girls’ can have a deep psychological, social and emotional impact.
(photo credit: TNS)
With all the uncertainty and stress throughout the world right now, and so many more people online, there’s a rampant toxin spreading that isn’t being talked about enough: the increase in cyberbullying during the pandemic.
Why does it matter? Cyberbullying includes any form of harassment that takes place online. It can include cyberstalking someone so they don’t feel safe; leaving harmful comments on their social media; posting pictures of them without their consent; creating hurtful posts about them and encouraging others to share and comment at their expense; harassing them through text, apps or email; spreading rumors online and more.
Like any form of bullying, there are deep consequences to this treatment of others and it’s impact on both children and adults.
What needs to be addressed now is:
• Has this terrible trend been increasing due to the crisis? 
• Are more people cyberbullying others as an outlet for their own stress and anxiety?
• How is this affecting the individual, parents, family, friends and community?
• What are the potential consequences and symptoms to pay attention to in case someone you know is being bullied and not speaking up?
• What are some tools and techniques we can all implement to reduce harm and find solutions?
LET’S LOOK at the statistics first to give a picture of what we are working with when it comes to online harassment:
Consider this: according to a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center, before the pandemic and social distancing, 95% of teens were already connected to the Internet for school, work and socializing. At least 85% of them are social media users. Almost half (45%) said they were online “almost constantly.”
In a 2019 survey of 4,972 middle and high school students between the ages of 12 and 17 in the United States, 36.5% said they felt cyberbullied at some point in their lives and 17.4% reported it had recently happened to them in the last 30 days from the survey. These numbers have more than doubled from a similar survey conducted in 2007. In further research and surveys done by McAfee, 87% of youth reported knowingly witnessed cyberbullying online, to the point where it is not surprising or unexpected.
I think it’s pretty safe to say that those numbers are higher or the same now with everyone spending more time online and at home. The problem expands beyond teenagers. Adults also spend an inordinate amount of time online for both work and leisure. As many companies have had to make their work virtual and remote, this automatically means more time on a computer screen.
It’s also common to use social media for work. It’s a tool to connect with clients, build an audience, run advertising, launch products and more. This opens the door to more visibility and exposure to harsh comments that can be considered cyberbullying.
According to another Pew Research Study, four in 10 Americans reported experiencing some form of online harassment. 62% of them consider it a major problem and feel there is not enough discernment between what is free speech and what is a safety issue online.
An anti-bullying organization called Ditch the Label conducts an annual survey on cyberbullying. In 2019, of the 22% who said they had been cyberbullied, 15% said it happens several times a week, 45% reported it happens at least once a month; 27% of youth surveyed said they have witnessed cyberbullying.
The following were the top reasons listed for cyberbullying:
• The person was singled out or bullied because of their appearance
• They were bullied and picked on because of their hobbies and interests
• They were judged and criticized because of the clothing they wear
• They were bullied because of their sexual orientation
It’s fair to say that cyberbullying is something that has taken place for quite some time, that people know it’s going on, and that it happens to both youth and adults.
In fact, it’s such a common problem, that there are resources to address cyberbullying that takes place at work. It can happen through emails, social media, showing up and leaving nasty comments on all of the target’s social media accounts, text messages and other message apps, etc. The kinds of bullying that can take place at work include impersonating a co-worker online to humiliate them, sharing their personal or work secrets in a public way online, and trolling them by leaving destructive comments wherever they are online.
Here is what is so insidious about bullying online. It can go on for a long time without being reported or noticed by others. It’s common for youth and adults to keep the harassment to themselves. They may fear no one will believe them, that it will make the harassment worse, that they may lose access to social connections or work opportunities. That it will make them look weak, and that it’s not that serious because it’s happening online.
Cyberbullying has a deep psychological, social and emotional impact. In many cases, the form of bullying is directed at someone’s appearance, social status and ability to fit in. The intention is to shame, embarrass, and humiliate the person being bullied.
In my work as a mind-body practitioner, I witness the many ways that a negative body image can hurt someone. It can lead to self-destructive behavior such as extreme dieting, eating disorders, self-harming and devastated self-esteem.
I also see just how much media, especially social media, inflicts further harm on body image through the way images of popular public figures are shared, the manner in which we use filters to completely change how we actually look, and even the practice of posing in front of wealthier looking homes to indicate a higher status social and economically.
Because standards of beauty, wealth and status are so celebrated, even when they’re artificially portrayed, they can also become weapons to hurt others.
No matter your age, cyberbullying impacts:
• Self-esteem
• Anxiety
• Depression
• Suicidal ideation and attempts
• Substance abuse
• Eating disorders
• Performance at work at school
So what can we do?
1. We have to normalize talking about it with everyone, no matter their age. We can see that cyberbullying takes place in the workplace, on social media and in schools. We also know people are more likely to keep it to themselves rather than report it. If you work somewhere where your team will be online to perform any part of their job, it’s important to create a culture of transparency and respect.
Be the first to show a zero-tolerance to cyberbullying. Stand up for yourself and your employees if it is coming from someone outside the organization. Make it normal to talk about the impact harmful comments have. And have clear company policies and guidelines to address it if it comes up within the organization.
2. Don’t be a bystander. A high percentage of people admit to witnessing cyberbullying online. We are all online more than ever before. Be someone who speaks up on behalf of others. Become an ally. Check in with the person who was bullied rather than going into a back-and-forth argument publicly with the person who is trolling. That prolonged exchange can cause more damage. Make it normal to care for each other online.
3. Check-in with yourself every day before going online. We know we can’t control the behavior of others. Sometimes we have to decide how we’ll take care of ourselves in certain situations. If you’re feeling particularly down one day, maybe it’s a day to spend off-line as much as you possibly can and practice some self-care. Have a plan for how you personally want to respond to any forms of bullying. Cultivate more self-love and acceptance within yourself so that insensitive comments feel less lethal.
4. Talk to your kids about ways they can protect themselves. Let them know that you’re there, that you won’t judge them, that you will listen, that you understand the impact of cyberbullying and will help them.
Because we can’t change the online world in one day or with one article, we have to do what we can to transform our relationship to ourselves, our self-worth, our self-esteem and our boundaries. No, it’s never your fault when someone treats you poorly. Yes, it does hurt. It would be more concerning if you didn’t feel impacted at all by abusive behavior.
However, we get to take care of ourselves and decide who and what we let in as much as possible. You get to delete and block. You can report. And you can cultivate a sense of deeper self-love every day, knowing that someone else’s perception of you is less important than the one you have of yourself.