While virtual threats may not seem as serious as those in the physical world, Psychology Today reports that may not be the case.
According to Samantha Silverberg of the non-profit Online SOS, people dealing with online threats are experiencing “even more distress… they don’t know if the threat will come to pass. There’s an anonymous piece of, ‘Will this happen or won’t this happen?’”.
Similarly, many American and British women canvassed by Amnesty International about their experience with online violence indicated “they were less able to focus on everyday tasks, had experienced stress, anxiety or panic attacks, and had a feeling of apprehension when thinking about social media or receiving social media notifications”.
Game developer Zoe Quinn said it felt like trolls were using her emotional state “as sport… [it’s like] you’re just a leisure pursuit for them and they enjoy watching someone being slowly broken down by it. Sometimes there have been occasions where I’ve just burst into tears when I think about it.” She says it’s ruined her enjoyment of the online sphere.
Currently, there is little research on the psychological impacts of cyberbullying on individuals. Unfortunately, this makes it difficult for online abuse victims to receive the treatment they need through a therapist, which is often their only solution if the police can’t help.
When influencer Lindsay Ellis first began receiving online threats, she blocked her assaulter, collected all threats and went straight to the police. However, she quickly learned there wasn’t much they could do.
“Effectively, they [police] said… ‘Yes, this is an arrestable offense, but it’s a misdemeanor, so we can’t break into his house even though we know where he lives and he has a record.’ Which was very illustrative in just learning how not just impotent law enforcement is, but how much… it’s not a priority for them,” she told PBS news.
As the number of threats escalated and started affecting her daily life, she sought out the help of several therapists. However, she learned it was a “big blind spot for them” due to a lack of anecdotal evidence and research on this topic.
Some therapists suggested she cut off contact with half her social network and simply stop being online. Such suggestions are not very practical for someone whose livelihood depends on social media use.
“The field knows that this is a problem, research is coming out, but as of yet we don’t have anything saying, ‘This is the best therapeutic strategy to deal with it,” said Kathryn Stamoulis during an interview with PBS.
While more research is needed to fully understand the psychological impact of online abuse to develop appropriate solutions, it is clear that the issue has long-term mental health consequences. Many victims, advocates and mental health professionals alike are saying that social media companies must take the impact of their platforms seriously. Having the ability to block and report users is simply not enough.