Online Bullying and Trauma: What’s At Stake?

[Content note: online bullying/harassment]

Since I wrote my last blog post, I’ve been treated to a number of enlightening debates about the issue of online bullying and PTSD. And by “enlightening,” I don’t mean that I changed my mind about anything or learned very much about online bullying or PTSD. Rather, I gained an understanding of just how desperately people will cling to the claim that online bullying cannot cause trauma (and therefore PTSD or other mental illnesses), or that even if it is in some way actually seriously damaging, we need to have some sort of different name for it to differentiate it from, you know, “real” trauma and psychological suffering.

This doesn’t seem to be that polarizing an issue, but it clearly has been (to wit: someone managed to compare me to a Fox News anchor and a fundamentalist Christian in the same paragraph because I claimed that both combat and online bullying can cause PTSD). Whenever people defend a view on an issue that does not impact them personally in any way with such gusto (and such incredible derision, contempt, and hatred), I get the sense that there’s more at stake here than the mere question of whether or not online bullying can cause trauma. Suppose it can, and does. What do we lose? How must we change the way we go about our lives online and off? What is so goddamn inconvenient about this idea that it must be defended so vigorously and, at times, so cruelly?

I can think of a few reasons why.

1. If online bullying can cause trauma, we must acknowledge that the internet is “real life.”

And there goes all the condescension about “surfing the web instead of going out into the ‘real world,’” all the snarking about people who meet their partners online (and perhaps don’t immediately follow that up by meeting in person), all the unsolicited advice about “don’t let it get to you, it’s just the internet,” all the ridicule of people whose primary social ties are through the internet, and all that.

2. If online bullying can cause trauma, we may have to be as careful with criticism and argument online as most of us are offline.

This is a lesson some writers learn the hard way. I remember the first time some public figure I criticized in a blog post actually read and responded to the thing, and I realized that I’m not just shouting into the void anymore. The person I criticized said that the criticism stung but that they learned a lot from it and that I was right. All the same, would I have written it differently if I’d expected them to read it? Absolutely. And these days I do.

I was a little bit horrified and dismayed to see how much power my words had, despite the fact that I had not been cruel or hateful at all. Criticism hurts, even when it’s justified and necessary, and even when the target of the criticism is ultimately glad to have received it. Offline we learn all sorts of techniques for criticizing someone effectively and fairly, like sandwiching the critique between two compliments. Online it’s easy to forget why we’re given that advice. It’s also easy to forget, especially when you’re not exactly internet famous, that the person you’re calling out might actually read it.

To be clear, I’m not saying that all online criticism (or even most of it) qualifies as “bullying.” Negative comments towards other people exist on a continuum. But if online bullying can be traumatic, then online criticism can be needlessly hurtful if not done carefully. Note that I said “needlessly”: sometimes hurting people is unavoidable because, as I said, criticism hurts. But I consider it an ethical responsibility to try to minimize needless hurt.

3. If online bullying can cause trauma, we have to take it seriously.

No more “don’t feed the trolls” or “it’s just some asshole in his parents’ basement” or “don’t let it get to you” or “it’s not like they can do anything to you anyway.” Even if they can’t physically find you and hurt you, they have already “done something” to you: they bullied you.

Of course, even offline bullying isn’t taken as seriously as it should be; things like that are said to victims of offline bullying too. But it’s not dismissed quite as much. There’s an understanding among most people that if you’re taunted and teased and harassed all day long at school, then it’s going to seriously harm you and your experience at school, especially if physical violence is involved. With the internet, it’s usually “just stop going on Twitter,” ignoring the fact that for many people, being on Twitter or other parts of the internet is pretty much as necessary as it is for children to attend school.

But we don’t want to take online bullying seriously because we don’t want to take the internet seriously, and because it’s easier to just dismiss it and put the onus on victims to avoid it rather than on social sites to develop better safeguards against it and on bullies to stop fucking bullying. We’ve chosen to treat bullying much as we’ve chosen to treat rape: as some sort of amorphous force of nature that we can never stop, only try to avoid.

4. If online bullying can cause trauma, we must expand our understanding of mental illness beyond what we see in the media.

Seeing a friend blown up by an IED can cause trauma. Receiving a constant stream of slurs and graphic threats of violence, dozens a day for several years, can also cause trauma. The former is much easier to portray in film and literature, and it’s what people are familiar with. You can’t shoot an interesting scene in which someone’s terrified to leave the house because some creep on Twitter said he knows where they live and plans to come rape them.

And that scene isn’t the type of scene that persuades people to donate thousands to PTSD therapy research. It doesn’t inspire a lot of sympathy. But it should, because as I wrote in the last post, sympathy is not a zero-sum game.

People keep insisting that if we claim that both combat and online bullying can cause trauma/PTSD, we’re somehow saying that combat and online bullying are “the same.” They’re not. Nobody claimed this, ever, at any point. If you hypothetically asked a large sample of people if they’d rather go to war for six months or be bullied online for six months, the majority may well pick the latter. Who knows? Who cares?

A multiplicity of different stimuli and experiences may lead to the same symptoms. Those symptoms may vary in severity based on the original stimulus, or they may not. I’m sure there are people who had much more difficult lives than I have whose depression is much less severe, or who don’t have depression or any mental illness at all. So what?

5. If online bullying can cause trauma, we have to accept the ways in which people avoid it.

As I’ve said, it’s not the victim’s job to prevent their own victimization. Nevertheless, the same technology that makes bullying so easy also makes avoiding it easier at times.

And yet. The same people who declaim that anyone traumatized by the internet must remove themselves from it forthwith (which, as I’ve noted, is not realistic, fair, or ultimately helpful) are also usually the people who ridicule anyone who takes steps to limit their exposure to nastiness online. These are the people who whine about their free speech whenever their comments are deleted from a blog. Who complain when a blogger has no comments section at all, as though having one were mandated by some Internet Rule. Who consider the existence of the Block Bot to be some enormous personal slight. They think that either you must be willing to engage with any and every person who decides to show the fuck up in your Twitter mentions or your comments section, or you must shut down your Twitter account and your blog.

Look, if you believe that it’s the responsibility of someone who’s getting bullied to avoid the bullying, you cannot then condemn them for avoiding it by any means other than never going on the internet again. This all-or-nothing crap is silly.

In conclusion: accepting the claim that online bullying can be traumatic may involve a shift in how we think about internet interaction. Generally, this shift entails taking more responsibility for the way we treat people online, taking online communication more seriously, and letting go of some stereotypes and misconceptions about the internet and mental illness. That sounds like hard work. I’m not surprised people find it so inconvenient.

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