The following, part of our Mental Wellbeing series, has been written by a member of the Scholasta Team.
How to Face Up to Online Bullying
The most important thing in your life is your health, and it’s important to remember that health refers to both your physical and mental wellbeing.
The internet has helped to advance the world in countless ways, from making communications far quicker and more effective, to helping small businesses to launch and gain exposure without the hefty advertising budgets needed historically, and it has helped people to connect and reconnect. There is no doubt that it has enriched millions of people’s lives.
The sharing of information and opinions has become a large part of how social media is used, and very often, the medium individuals use to express themselves in their private, as opposed to professional, spheres. Unless you’ve always been particularly savvy regarding your privacy settings on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, as well as any online forums you might have joined over the years, the chances are that you will have interacted with strangers on some level. In some cases, you may have formed online friendships, some of which may have translated to “real-world” or “offscreen” friendships, but you may also have found people with whom you fundamentally disagree, and with whom you have had heated debates, or even arguments.
Whilst disagreement is a natural part of life, and something with which you must learn to cope, there comes a point whereby a debate can become personal, and stray from the actual topic of discussion. If an online discussion reaches that stage, and you feel in any way intimidated or attacked, you should distance yourself from the other person immediately, block them, and report them to the website (escalating it further if necessary). Whilst not everyone has to agree with you, and it is not up to anyone to ensure that you are not offended by their remarks, no-one has the right to attack you for the way you look, how you dress, your race, gender, beliefs, sexual orientation, background, nationality, or any of your life choices. As long as you’re not breaking the law, or endangering other people, you don’t have to justify yourself to anyone, and certainly not to strangers online.
Many people you meet online with be friendly, well-adjusted individuals, who are, like you, online to pursue their interests (be it fashion, cars, animals, politics, and so on), and meet likeminded individuals. If you decide to upload a photo for example, most people will be positive, and “like” it, or scroll past if it doesn’t resonate with them. As we know from celebrities and other famous people who have spoken out, there are always individuals who will criticise and be nasty, whilst hiding behind a computer screen. Their comments might make you feel insecure, unsure of yourself, or they may find your Achilles heel and make you unhappy about one, or more, elements of your life. Whilst it is much easier to say than to put into practise, you should do whatever you can to put their comment into perspective and not let it affect you.
The first step towards doing this is to imagine what kind of person decides to attack a complete stranger. Just think about that for a moment. Do you imagine a happy, positive, likeable person doing that? Do you think it’s the people with full lives and a large group of friends spending time criticising the posts and photos of others who have done nothing to harm them? Of course not. The people who engage in online bullying are fundamentally unhappy individuals who are unable to cope with their own emotions, and the way they deal with it is by lashing out, trying to make others feel as badly about themselves as they do. It’s an attempt to increase the number of people who hate themselves. In your offline life, you probably spend your time with people you like, whose company you enjoy, and who make you feel better about yourself. Why then would you spend time and your energy on people you may not know, and whose opinions you should not value, online?
However addictive social media can be, don’t let yourself spend any time with those who want to drown you in negative energy. Don’t acknowledge their comments. Make them realise that they are completely insignificant, and that they have no impact on your life. In the majority of cases, that will make them go away, back into their hole. In the instances where it does not, whilst you might feel that there must be something wrong with you for them to continue harassing you, you need to realise that they are only spending so much of their time following you because they are jealous of the life you have. Jealousy is one of the most pernicious destructive forces in society, and social media has done nothing if not fan the flames for those who feel discontented with their own lives. The reality is that there is nothing wrong with you. Ironically, you’re probably doing well in your life if you have so many people who secretly wish their life was much more in line with yours.
Life is hard, and there will be times when you feel that there are more people against you than on your side. You can feel as though you’re drowning, or very isolated. You might feel that there aren’t people you can talk to, or you might want to talk to someone who isn’t a friend, family member, or teacher, because you feel more comfortable sharing your concerns with someone who isn’t as “involved” in your life. If that’s the case, you need to find someone you can trust. Don’t trust someone online, because you don’t know if they are who they say they are, or if they have your best interests at heart. Wherever possible, you should talk to someone who has some experience of listening to people, whether it’s your doctor, a priest, or even a charity such as Childline, or the Samaritans. Whatever you do, make sure you reach out. Don’t feel as though your problems aren’t worthy, or that you’ll cause someone too much bother. Everyone has different problems, it’s just that some people are better at hiding what’s going on in their lives than others. Never feel ashamed for your emotions, or feel that you have to explain them in some way. You don’t need to justify yourself, and if there is anyone in your life who expects you to do that, you should think about whether they deserve to be a part of your life.
If someone dismisses how you feel, your problems, or tells you to come back later because it’s not a good time to talk, it reflects badly on their part, not yours. There are people who care how you feel, and who will want to support you. Even if you feel as though your immediate circle doesn’t care, and you feel that you want to talk to someone, call a charity which supports people who are going through difficult times. They are supportive, non-judgemental, and a good number of their volunteers have been on the receiving end of bullying, and they want to help other people. Bullying, whether done online, or via some other medium, is rife, and you might not realise how many people have been affected by it. You might find some comfort in seeing how widespread it really is, and how other people have coped.
It is not a sign of weakness to ask for help; it’s the exact opposite. Bullying can affect anyone at any age. It’s so often related to young children and adolescence, but it can affect people at university, and in the workplace. One benefit of being older is that you care less about what other people think, but I know of many adults who have reached out for support due to discrimination in the workplace, or in other arenas of their lives. Knowing when and how to ask for help is a sign of maturity and, most importantly, knowing that you have a strong support network does help to alleviate any negative emotions you feel. You are only alone if you choose to be.
The world of social media often bears little resemblance to reality, and this is often forgotten. So many accounts are fake, or only show a very filtered insight into someone’s life. Very few people genuinely take multiple luxurious holidays a year, naturally look like models, and for whom life has no worries or cares. Everyone has problems they must overcome, and every successful person works hard. It has become almost a taboo to suggest that you need to work hard to be good at something- there always has to be some insinuation that it has all come naturally and just fallen into your lap. People seem to derive great pleasure in showing the end result and implying that they got there without effort or struggle, and that is disingenuous. Without exception, everyone has failed countless times before they have succeeded. Instead of minimising their hard work, and making their achievements seem like some sort of magic trick, their determination and perseverance should be rewarded and respected. Before you feel as though your life is worse than someone else’s, or that you’re not where you want to be, remember that social media accounts are heavily edited to appear as much like a film as possible; it’s unlikely that a person will secure thousands or millions of followers by posting the mundane. Also bear in mind that pursuing popularity on social media is as fickle and vacuous as unpopularity. Would it really improve your life to know that someone you will never meet on the other side of the world likes your new jumper or shoes? Your self esteem should never be based on how other people view you- it should be on how you view and value yourself.
From a psychological perspective, it’s always a good idea to have regular breaks from social media so that you can avoid being sucked into that parallel universe, and keep as many face-to-face interactions with others as possible. It’s how you live your life, and how you build memories. Time can seem like a blur if you are constantly comparing yourself with others. If, however, you rely on social media, and don’t feel that you’re ready to leave it, even not logging-in for a couple of days, there are some things you can do to keep yourself feeling positive:
Every day, write a list of five points you like about yourself.They can be small or big things, but make sure that you write the list daily.Don’t be afraid to focus on what’s good about you- it’s not boasting, and it’s a list that’s private to you.It’s a good task for you to be able to identify your strengths.
Ask your close friends and family members what they like about you, and keep that as a list that you look at daily.They might see qualities in you that you don’t see in yourself, and it will show you how highly you are valued by others who actually know you, and interact with you regularly.
At the end of each day, write down three things you have achieved.These might be small things, such as completing your homework on time, or they might be more substantial, but it will show you how you are progressing, and improving your life.There are times when everyone feels as though they’re not getting any closer to achieving their goals, and this mindfulness can help you to see that you are progressing, even if you feel as though you’re having a bad day!
Unfollow people who are negative, or who aren’t making you feel better about yourself.There is no reason why you should allow “nay-sayers” and people who drain your energy into your life.If they are not serving a positive purpose, why spend your free time looking at them?If you can’t enjoy your relaxation time, life isn’t as fun, or as fulfilling, as it could be.
Be mindful about the information you’re sharing with the world, and your privacy settings.You might not realise it, but your photos, posts, and personal information could be tracked and stored by complete strangers, who may be building up a profile about your life- where you go, your friendship groups, your likes and dislikes.It’s really important that you’re careful about the information you share- once it’s “out there”, it’s very difficult to remove all traces of it, and you don’t know whether it’s been saved by someone else.If you are at all unsure about your privacy settings, or how to protect yourself online, please ask others for help, and contact the websites and apps for support.
Not everyone has to agree with you, and the world would be a dull place if everyone thought and believed the same things.Disagreement is essential for improvements and progress to be made.Similarly, in a society where free speech should be prized, it is not for you to expect people not to express their views or thoughts just because they disagree with you- saying that you find them “offensive” is no defence.What is essential, however, is realising when someone’s words or actions are attacking you, or what you represent, on a personal level, and when it is done with the intention of harming you.That is when it becomes bullying, and the moment that happens, you cut all ties with the person, report them, and get help and support from as many different sources as you need for it not to have a negative impact on your life (or for it to be of short duration).Many people don’t realise how harmful bullying can be, and how it can affect how you view yourself, often throughout a lifetime.The sooner you reach out, the sooner you can distance yourself from the comments, and the earlier you can realise that you were being bullied by someone weak who actually needs help themselves, you can move on with the minimum hurt caused.
The repercussions of bullying affect more than the victim. Friends and family members can see changes in a person, and the impact can be devastating. With online bullying meaning that individuals can be targeted at any time of the day or night, suicide rates are increasing year on year, as are the number of self-harm cases, and the number of young people suffering from depression. This must be addressed, and the most effective way of doing so is to tackle the problem head-on, by talking about it, and by making support networks easily accessible. More people have lost friends and family members to bullying than is commonly realised, and it is extraordinarily difficult for those left behind to make sense of what went wrong, and why the victim didn’t ask for help. They can feel helpless, and deeply hurt that whoever was close to them didn’t reach out to them for support. That is why if you ever feel as though you are being bullied, you ask for help immediately. You will not be mocked, or viewed as being weak, and you might be surprised at how talking to someone can help to alleviate the pain and insecurities. Never keep it to yourself- the only person wanting you to do that, and relying on your not speaking up, is the bully. Don’t give them that power, or satisfaction. Put yourself, and your own well-being, first.
Finally, if you’re not being bullied, but you think you know someone who is, you need to approach the topic sensitively- they may not be ready to ask for support, and it wouldn’t be right to push them into it. There are ways you can let them know that you’re there for them, such as sending them regular texts, and suggesting meeting up for a coffee, and being positive when you’re around them, complimenting them, and focusing on their strengths. If you make yourself available to them when they need support, you are helping them even if you don’t realise it. There will be people who are experiencing, or have experienced, bullying, who wish to keep that private. Even in the recent #metoo campaign, so many victims chose not to share their story, and that is entirely their prerogative. Sometimes, the best support you can offer is just letting someone know that you’re there for them as and when you’re needed, and not ambushing them or questioning them about why their behaviour has changed, or trying to get them to engage with you and open up. Whilst your motives would no doubt be nothing but honourable, everyone processes things differently, especially traumatic events.
If you, or someone you know, has been affected by bullying, here are some contact details you might find helpful:
Childline: 0800 1111. This is a free number, and you don’t have to give your name. You can also contact them online.
Samaritans: 116 123. This is a free number, and, as they say on their website, you don’t have to be suicidal to call them. You can also contact e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org but they recommend that you call if you’d like to talk to someone immediately.
Ditch The Label: This is an online support group where you can receive help from trained digital mentors, and people who’ve been through similar experiences.
Kidscape: 020 7823 5430. This is a non-emergency number for parents to discuss bullying and to receive advice and support. You can also visit the Kidscape website (www.kidscape.org.uk) to watch an anti-bullying film called “Cookies”, which was performed in London in October 2017.