Social media, cyberbullying and mental health

Source : Google images

By March of 2020, most of the world had started going under lockdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. With millions of jobs lost, unemployment rates across the globe started spiking up. Disease, death and racial tensions were already all over the news. In these uncertain and stressful times, April and May saw a huge drop of upto 50% in calls made to child abuse helplines, while all studies suggest that actual maltreatment of kids increased at that time.[1a][1b]
This was a byproduct of schools and abuse, both moving online. Most of the calls to these helplines before the pandemic were made by school teachers when they noticed bullying or distress among children. With classes moving to zoom/meet, and talking moving to chat windows with anonymous usernames, it has become increasingly difficult for teachers and adults to detect abuse and harassment.

Two major manifestations of this came in the limelight: India woke up to the news of an Instagram chat room of teenage boys discussing gang rapes and organising harassment attacks on girls using their morphed images [2]. Around the same time, a Telegram group of 260,000 participants in South Korea engaging in pornography of teenage girls resulted in dozens of arrests and a nightmare for all internet companies, which spent days trying to detect and remove Gigabytes of related material from their platforms [3].

These egregious cases should direct our attention to what that part of the population experiences which already spent a major part of their time expressing themselves, and thus gaining enemies on social media platforms.

Cyberbullying affects more than half of social media users worldwide, suffering from prolonged and/or coordinated digital harassment. Amit Malviya, the leader of the Indian troll army recently shared a poignant message on depression and suicide, after the sad demise of the Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. I assume that he doesn’t understand that bullying is an issue that could result in significant emotional and psychological suffering with some resulting in suicides [4].
Barbara Coloroso, an author who has written on the Rwandan genocide, puts bullying as the start of the spectrum of socialisation, that ends with genocide. She argues that it is a short walk from bullying to hate crimes to genocide. Her analysis shows that both bullying and genocide are essentially an utter contempt for another human being who is been deemed by the bully and his or her accomplices to be worthless or inferior and undeserving of respect.[5]

Now, cyberbullying is even worse than traditional bullying because it can follow the victim everywhere, happen at any time and it is frequently anonymous.
A few years ago, when data was not free and it was still just data and not the new oil, cyberbullying was not taken as seriously as it should have been. The typical advice was to just turn off the screen, or disconnect. However with tech giants going after the next billion users after each billion users, the extent of its consequences has reached epidemic levels. Twitter, with its small character limit and countless fake accounts becomes a breeding ground of to-the-point, targeted, organised and abusive bullying. The fact that most of the tweets are grammatically and syntactically incorrect, and constitute harassment in the context of only the target and not in general, makes it extremely difficult for algorithms to proactively detect abusive content. However, that does not discount the effect it creates on the mental health of victims, and people like me who feel a compulsion to go through and report such comments.

Cyberbullying has been associated with moderate to severe depressive symptoms, substance use, ideation and suicide attempts. Being the target of bullying was most strongly related to depression, compared with all other outcomes, in a meta-analysis performed with studies from 23 countries.[6] People who experienced bullying or cyberbullying are nearly 2 times more likely to attempt suicide.[7]
Current research suggests that suicide ideation and attempts among adolescents have nearly doubled since 2008[8], making suicide the 2nd leading cause of death for individuals 10–34 years of age. [9]

Even when someone is not directly a victim of bullying, the disgustingly apathetic behaviour often seen on social media is a menace that is very ignorantly not taken seriously. Soon after the irresponsible reporting of Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide, Whatsapp was filled with related disturbing images. Such images have the potential to act as a trigger to the already vulnerable people and can result in what is widely known as “Werther effect” or “Copycat effect”. The name comes from the 1774 book, The Sorrows of Young Werther, which triggered a rash of suicides by impressionable people imitating the book’s protagonist.
This was also seen after the suicide of Marilyn Monroe in 1962. Following her death, the rate of suicides increased by almost 12 percent in the United States alone, with over 300 additional deaths being reported the same month. [10]
To get the point home, a study of suicides in South Korea also concluded that celebrity deaths and other highly publicised suicides have been found to have an enduring effect on people who consume news — working as triggers for those who may already be in emotional or physical distress. [11]

While it is futile to expect that the troll army, or the 50cent party [12] would stop their harassment in an increasingly divided world, it is important to keep oneself sane. There is always a concern that being offline would translate to being unaware and closing our eyes to all the injustice that is happening around us, and would be a misuse of our privilege. However it is still important to stay sane, and it is possible to stay aware and active while avoiding the sea of hatred on Twitter for sometime.

- Signing off, trying for a slightly safer internet.

[4] Boyd, 2007
[6] Hawker & Boulton
[7] Hinduja & Patchin, 2018
[8] Plemmons et al., 2018
[9] CDC, 2017
[10] Social Science Quarterly2000;81:957–71

Tries to understand and fight internet abuse — hate, phishing, misinformation and spam.