The psychological impact of online harassment and tips to safeguard yourself online

How to protect our mental wellbeing in the digital age

By Bisi Laniyan

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Published: Thu 23 May 2024, 9:59 PM

Last updated: Thu 23 May 2024, 10:00 PM

In recent weeks, there has been a surge in discussions about stalking, cyberbullying, and online harassment. A popular streaming service aired a controversial show documenting the journey of online stalking and harassment, sparking quite a bit of controversy. In response to this, I have noticed many stories come to the forefront, shedding light on the darker aspects of the online world.

The Internet is not without its positives and has transformed communication, making it easy for people to connect globally through email, social media and so on. This was a lifeline for many of us during the pandemic. The online world provides access to a vast amount of information on literally any topic. It offers convenience, enhances entertainment, and allows for the sharing of talents worldwide. With the Internet, we can watch content on demand and showcase our skills to a wide audience.

With a plethora of benefits to online accessibility, there is also a downside. One such downside is that individuals we may not know or have ever met can gain access to our private moments, personal experiences, and information. For many, this accessibility is exploited for the purpose of bullying and harassment.

In many circumstances, we see the Internet give people a ‘free anonymity pass’. This means people can hide behind their screen and say what they want, when they want and to whoever they have access to. This has inevitably given rise to cyberbullying and online harassment.

The impact of bullying, particularly online stalking and harassment, can be severe. Victims often experience feelings of embarrassment, shame and confusion. Some victims may even feel compassion or sympathy for their stalkers, leading them to engage in communication to placate them and with the hope that the harassment might stop. This can leave victims feeling vulnerable, paranoid, and constantly on edge.

The effects of online harassment can also manifest physically, with victims experiencing sleepless nights, restlessness fuelled by rumination, headaches, and severe symptoms of distress that may require psychological help. Physical sensations of fear or anxiety, such as trembling, sweating or feeling sick, can affect daily life, including academic, professional and social performance. Victims may withdraw from social interaction thinking if I ‘hide myself’, maybe I can protect myself. However, what we know is that withdrawal and isolation worsen depression or anxiety.

Beyond the physical and mental toll, online harassment can have far-reaching consequences, including damage to careers, social reputation, professional standing and breakdowns in family and other relationships. So, this can be serious!

Tips to safeguard yourself online:

-Be careful about the information you share. Consider the trends you join, as they may give others access to your location or background.

-Seek permission before posting pictures or videos of others online.

-Don’t hesitate to report inappropriate content to the platform and use the block button to control who can view your content. Remember, social media is like an online diary.

-Consider changing your settings so you don’t see other people’s likes, views and comments.

-Ask someone you trust to help you screen your messages and comments, deleting, blocking and reporting on your behalf to limit negative interactions.

-Sometimes, you may need to change your handles or accounts to sever ties with unwanted individuals.

-Practise self-care by taking regular breaks from screens and technology to reduce digital stress. Consider a social media break if needed.

-Change your passwords regularly, enable multi-factor authentication if you can and don’t forget to update your software for added security.

-If you’re a parent or caregiver, have conversations with young ones and educate them on online safety. Older adults are also vulnerable, so monitor your loved ones’ use.

Rebuilding confidence and trust after experiencing online bullying or harassment can be challenging. Support from legal services and professional services can be as helpful as therapy. If you or someone you know is struggling with the effects of cyberbullying, seeking therapy can be vital. Therapy provides a safe space to process these experiences, develop coping strategies, and recover from the emotional and psychological effects of online harassment.

Dr Linyan is a clinical psychologist and adult specialist

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