Harassment has grown exponentially since the creation of the social internet, starting with Facebook in 2004. Apps like Twitter and Instagram don’t explicitly promote online abuse, but they don’t do enough to stop the hate, oftentimes letting it fester. While they bother everyone, harassers disproportionately target women—in particularly cruel ways, including body shaming, malicious ridiculing, and stalking. Women also receive messages threatening bodily harm, including sexual assault and murder, to themselves and their loved ones. And when targeted women speak up about the misogyny and sexism they face on a constant basis, harassers use that against them too; when Taylor Lorenz sat with MSNBC to discuss her personal struggles with online abuse, an out-of-context clip of her crying was the only part that made it onto the news, prompting comments like “women are too emotional” and “toughen up,” exactly the sort of abuse Lorenz was trying to bring to light.
While this is all troubling, it gets worse. According to a 2014 survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 1 in 10 women has dealt with online harassment. And according to a poll done by Amnesty International in 2017, 33% of women in the US have been sexually harassed online. Bullying, and specifically sexual harassment, has long-term consequences on victims’ self-esteem, body image, and overall mental health. When young women’s social media posts garner cruel, and often creepy, responses, they may feel like they deserve the negativity, or that they brought it upon themselves, or, worst of all, that the comments are true. This has dire mental health effects: depression, body dysmorphia, paranoia, and anxiety. And as the social internet gets bigger, it gets harder and harder to police nefarious content.
While this issue may never fully go away, it is still important to address it. If you find yourself the victim of online attacks, there are a few things that can help. To actively mitigate the damage, report the comment and block the user. While the comment may not get taken down, at least you won’t have to see it anymore. More importantly, a support system is key. Often we are so mired in the hate we witness online that we can’t see how senseless it is, and friends are there to put things into perspective. It is sometimes hard to internalize, but your image of yourself should not stem from how others perceive you, it should come from you. Hate feeds on hate, so stopping the negativity cycle and focusing on a healthy response that makes you feel better is important in engendering more positivity in your social media experience. It may not change the world, but if it helps you, that’s enough.