Cyber-aggression: the pile-on

I am fortunate that I’m old enough that when Facebook became popular I was safely out of my awkward preteens and into my awkward late teens. I had a MySpace and remember chatting on AOL in evenings after school with friends, one of whom sent me a screenshot of my crush who had posted in his bio that another girl was “hottttt and looked good at homecoming”. Commence heartbreak.

I don’t mean to denigrate technology, because I love new tech and it makes so many things possible that weren’t before. For example, Snapchat’s disappearing messages can be a great tool for someone in a domestic violence relationship to be able to ask for help even if they fear that their partner is going through their phone. Tech has definitely created new communication dynamics though. So much of communication now is written – texts, apps, chats, blog posts, and page posts – that there is a whole new wealth of ways that someone can take a person’s words and images and distribute them to the world. That’s especially damaging for young people who are new to making boundaries in their relationships and friendships. Naked photos are the classic example, but there are so many extremely damaging communications happening that are outside this realm. What I’ve seen to be most damaging in clients I have worked with is what I like to call the pile-on.

I am planning my wedding and wrote a post about RSVPs. Within minutes I had a dozen responses telling me how rude I was to expect people to RSVP early, despite the fact that I had already acknowledged I was uncertain about timelines and was asking for a guideline on when to start reminding. I feel pretty confident about myself and don’t like to think that strangers on the internet can affect me, but I felt a surge of anxiety when I scrolled down the screen to read so much hostility. I am convinced that if I were in person with a group of other people, there is no way I would have gotten those kinds of responses to my words.

Now this is a teeny-tiny example of a pile-on. I don’t need to look at this wedding app daily and it’s unlikely that people will share my post or even care about it after today. I’ve seen the same dynamic played out in a much scarier way with comments on blogs, news websites, and Youtube channels. It’s not uncommon to see death threats for even minor opinions expressed about something like movies or music. Even in this therapy group that I use on Facebook, I’ve seen people pile on to scold other therapists about their methods. I hear so many clients distressed by dating apps with the communication and hostility they receive if they set boundaries or even fail to respond. The truth is that the number of methods to be hostile to someone have increased but there is a lack of identified ways to cope with that.

Sure you can tell someone who feels overwhelmed by negativity to just get off the app, not take it seriously, not read the comments, etc. But we all know that this doesn’t work. More than ever, to be successful we have to be marketing ourselves online and create a persona to get things like jobs and romantic partners. Also as a rule, it never works to tell someone how to feel or not feel. Most people don’t like feeling bad so they aren’t choosing it in the moment, at least not consciously.

My suggestion, what helps me anyway, is to try and balance out the types of messages I receive daily so I can have some better view of myself and of people. Getting a large dose of criticism daily can start to make me feel like humans are terrible which can get me into a negative thinking loop that is just unhelpful. When we come to a conclusion like that, we tend to find reinforcement for it, and it deepens until we’re dug into a pit that’s hard to come out of. So my solution for negativity online is to do what I can to control the environment – disabling comments when I feel it’s necessary, filling my social media feed with positive accounts, things like bunnies and memes, and hiding or blocking other accounts. Also, any negative texts, messages, or emails I receive I promptly delete so I don’t have to read it again, even by accident. If for some reason someone needs to save texts (maybe as evidence for a court case), I suggest screen-shotting them and then putting the images in an email folder so that there are no visual reminders of them on a regular basis. Whatever can be done to reduce reminders of the interaction is helpful.

But what do you do with a pile-on, or another situation when the damage is already done and affecting your self-esteem? I have had clients have this issue and it can feel like a never ending assault. First steps could be to clean up the damage or delete the post in question so the pile-on stops. Don’t let it get any further than it needs to. See if you can get it taken down or reported as inappropriate by moderators. If you said something incorrect that got misconstrued or you later realized was not ok, apologize directly for it while also acknowledging that the level of conversation has deteriorated to a point that is disrespectful and you won’t respond to that. Addressing people head-on may be the last thing you want to do, but often those who bully online become very timid and ashamed if they’re called out. If you feel you can’t do it, see if you can get some friends or family to confront the individuals for you. Building up your allies will help you feel supported and start to heal.

Then make yourself stop looking at it and decide you are going to let go. Affirming yourself with things you know to be true – your skills, abilities, qualities, and positive relationships is a start. Building yourself back up again without disclaimers – meaning you only get to say positive things to yourself and you’re not allowed to make a follow-up comment that negates or lessens the affirmation. It helps to write these down to have a visual. If comments are getting to you and you’re internalizing criticism, a really simple exercise to do is to write down your negative thoughts about yourself. Then go through each one and challenge the thought with an affirmation. It can go like this – negative thought: “I’m so stupid, everyone hates me.” The challenge thought is then “not everyone hates me, I definitely have a lot of friends. Maybe a few people don’t like me, but that’s normal. And I’m not stupid, I’m able to do lots of things.”

Finally, if you do these things and still find yourself being really overwhelmed by pressures from outside and negative thoughts, it may be good to talk to a mental health professional. They can help you find exercises like the one above that help you address your own insecurities and make new strategies to let things go when they upset you. For more resources on bullying, please see this site for tips.

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