It has been months now that we have been getting used to the “new normal” of adjusting our lives during a health pandemic. Most of our interactions have transitioned from in-person contact to virtual communication. Thankfully, technology has allowed us to stay connected via our electronic devices. Unfortunately, not all interactions are positive, and coping with the effects of harmful behaviors online, particularly cyberbullying, during a pandemic can feel unbearable. As we spend more time in front of electronic screens, it is important to be aware of cyberbullying, its effects and how to cope with it.

What Is Cyberbullying?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” The organization further defines cyberbullying as “bullying that takes place over digital devices like cell phones, computers, and tablets.” This form of bullying can show up on social media apps, through communication via text messages, emails and gaming devices. It is a behavior that is repeated over a period of time and can cause long-lasting effects on its victims. Individuals who are the victims of cyberbullying often experience depression and anxiety from the bullying. Though bullying is often associated with school aged children, cyberbullying has expanded to encompass individuals of any age and can be just as harmful to adults as it is to children.  Cyberbullying can show up in many different forms. Here are three forms of cyberbullying to look out for as you navigate online:

1. Trolling

Trolling is defined as the act of making “a deliberately offensive or provocative online post with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them.” You may remember the fairytale “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” as a child. The story tells the tale of three Billy goats attempting to cross a bridge to get to greener pastures. They are met by an angry troll living under the bridge who threatens to eat the Billy goats if they cross. Like the angry troll in the fairy tale, internet trolls comment to provoke anger and fear with their words. They are looking for a fight. They write contrary opinions on posts just to get a reaction. Internet trolls often say hurtful things in their quest of creating chaos. These individuals can be complete strangers or people you know. I once had a family member who would constantly troll my posts. No matter what I posted, there was always a negative comment or criticism from this individual. I politely asked that they not comment negatively on the posts I created. When they chose not to respect that boundary, I chose to block the individual. I learned that this person also posted similar things on the posts of other family members. Though I loved the individual, it was obvious that they were trolling. When encountering an internet troll, remember that their main purpose is to spread negativity and cause conflict.

2. Name Calling/Slandering

It’s one of the oldest forms of bullying in the book. Name calling has traveled from the outside playgrounds to social media platforms. I try to stay away from the comment section of social media posts, but sometimes I will look to see others’ perspectives on certain posts. I’m always amazed at how quickly opinions turn to mean attacks. Simply disagreeing with a comment can lead to an individual being called hateful names. Some will go as far as to threaten the individual’s life or wish harm to them. With the shield of distance and a keyboard versus seeing someone face to face, name calling becomes a lot easier for people to partake in. It becomes even easier if you do not personally know the individual you are attacking. Criticizing someone’s beliefs, physical appearance and interests is a lot more convenient if you don’t have to worry about ever seeing that person face to face. An individual can spew hateful comments and walk away, never worrying about how their words have affected others. Contrary to the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” words do hurt. Harmful words leave emotional scars that can take years to heal.

3. Idealizing

This form of cyberbullying is less overt. It doesn’t occur by saying mean things or spreading rumors about an individual. Instead it presents itself as idealized images of unattainable lifestyles. We’ve all seen the Instagram models who seem to travel 12 months out of the year. Their picture feeds are full of the most lavish beaches, foods, etc., coupled with a caption like, “Living my best life!” The magic of social media is the ability to create controlled content that generates as many likes as possible and makes its viewers desire the images they see. It can often leave us feeling like our everyday lives are less than enough. Remember, bullying creates power imbalances. Constantly seeing images and posts of others with seemingly perfect lives creates the illusion that they are better than us. They are perceived to have better bodies, better skin, better social lives, etc. This idea can have long lasting effects on our mental health and can promote feelings of depression and hopelessness.

How to Combat Online Bullying

1. Unplug/Disengage

I’m sure you’ve heard the advice to walk away when conflict arises. The same advice can be applied to interactions that lead to cyberbullying. Remember that it is OK to disengage. That disengagement may look like deleting a comment, blocking a harmful user, or taking a break from the social media platform or gaming system you are using.

2. Choose Your Battles Wisely

It is easy, especially if you are passionate about a topic, to get sucked into arguments on social media. When I feel myself being pulled into a discussion that I know could lead to cyberbullying, I try to ask myself, “Is it worth the battle?” If the conversation takes a wrong turn and you are verbally attacked, will the opinion you share be worth the backlash you receive? Oftentimes I realize that my opinion is not needed and I choose not to engage.

3. Self-Care/Celebrate Yourself

You are amazing even if you’re not traveling to exotic beaches every weekend, even if you don’t have a million followers, and even if your picture only receives 10 likes. I know it is tempting to tie your self-worth to the reactions you receive on social media platforms. Don’t. Celebrate the positives in your life and practice not needing the affirmation of others to validate your worthiness, especially from those you may not even know.

4. Seek Professional Help

If cyberbullying has had an affect on your mental health, remember that it is OK to seek professional help. Cyberbullying is a serious offense and can be harmful to your wellbeing if it is not handled well. Please contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs if you need mental health treatment.

April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.