As our world becomes more and more rooted and dependent upon online platforms we no longer have the luxury of dismissing the impact of words.

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Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

Bullying has been with us in one shape or form since the beginning of societal groupings but in the current world of social media it has taken on entirely new levels of scope and intensity. Pre-social media generations often have a hard time understanding why comments from strangers get taken so seriously but in many ways online bullying is more intense and harmful than bullying done directly to one’s face.

This is not to say direct bullying is anything less than toxic, destructive, and cruel. Those who experience bullying on a constant basis struggle with anxiety, depression, anger, and are far more prone to substance abuse, self-harming behavior, and suicidal ideation. These effects can be catastrophic, life long, requiring years of support and therapy to deal with. All forms of bullying need to be taken seriously and not tolerated, period.

We have a tendency to think of bullying as being relegated to the school hallways of adolescence. While the insecurities and raging hormones of our teenage years certainly make us both extremely vulnerable and far more prone to bullying it is a behavior which by no means disappears once we reach voting age. Even the briefest glance at our Western political landscapes offers glaring evidence of adult bullying in all its abhorrent glory.

Online bullying has exploded into an epidemic in our society and while some attempt to dismiss it as meaningless remarks from strangers which should simply be ignored the reality is this new technological window offering us access to the entire virtual world also offers that same virtual world access to us. And with so much of our interactions and reputations initiated and based online what happens to us in the virtual space can have massive impact on what happens to us in our physical daily lives.

But why is online bullying so powerful? Where does that power come from? Why are we so vulnerable to it? And why is it so difficult to cope with or combat?

The Bias of the Printed Word

Technology leaps forward faster than society can evolve to keep pace with it. In the case of online and information technologies that pace is literally exponential. We are able to send limitless amounts of information instantaneously to the opposite sides of the world but we are still struggling with cultural biases and assumptions about the written word which have been around since before the printing press.

We have a cultural paradigm of viewing words in print as having importance and authority. This stems from times when education was only for the elite upper castes of society and the process of putting words into print was extremely slow and labor intensive. If someone took the time to commit letters to permanent inscription then those words were given enormous consideration and scrutiny beforehand and viewed with immense respect afterwards. While this by no means guaranteed accuracy or truth printed words were never frivolous and were instilled with authority because they were coming from the leadership classes.

In our modern era a couple clicks on a letter pad and our words can be instantly accessible at a global scale but we still endow printed words with this authoritative weight. Those words have no physical manifestation, they exist in a fully virtual form, and yet we still regard them as having heft and permanence, though that permanence refers to our inability to retract something once it is ‘out there’ rather than permanent physical presence.

Even though so much of our online communications are unconsidered acts of impulse we still regard printed words as having the weight and power of authority, giving comments meant to bully a prejudicial and undeserved amount of power.

We Fixate on the Negative

This is not because all sentient beings are inherently pessimistic or because the evil in the world has won, we’re not and it hasn’t. At a primal level we are biologically wired to pay more attention to negative emotional responses than to positive ones. Feeling happy is all well and good but feelings of fear, anger, anxiety, and stress are all keyed to sensing and dealing with danger. Being sensitive to potential danger is crucial to survival.

At a pragmatic level our species may have come a long way from having to worry about wild carnivores pouncing on us from behind the bushes but those reflexive impulses are still with us and have simply shifted to focus on the new form of survival, social survival. Since a crucial element in our ability to function in our daily lives is now based on how we fit into the organized and hierarchical society around us people’s potentially negative opinions or impressions of us can be just as deadly as the fangs of our historic predators.

The adage about it taking ten positive comments to out-weigh the sting of one negative comment holds true not because positive thoughts and feelings don’t hold any importance or meaning but because our base need to survive enables our impulse of staying alert for potential threats to out-rank our appreciation of expressions of appreciation.

We can’t feel any warm fuzzies if we’re dead, so we have to watch out for potential danger first.

Virtual Comments Generate the Same Emotional Response as Face to Face Ones

Similar to the way information technology has leapt ahead of our bias for viewing printed words having automatic authority, we tend to respond the same way emotionally to comments made online as those made directly to us. Despite being fully aware of how little effort, time, or consideration it takes to post an online comment when those comments are directed at us we disregard that and reflexively take the words and sentiment to heart.

Intellectually we may know the vast majority of online comments are impulsive, reactionary, attention seeking, and often have virtually nothing to do with us personally. On an emotional level we treat them as if the commenter had driven for countless hours to come to our doorstep and say them directly to our faces. And in this space the paradigm of ‘ten positive comments to one negative comment’ is in full and overpowering glory.

We require emotional connection to the world and people around us. The virtual world may not be built to properly support and facilitate the full weight of that kind of connection but as more and more of our social interactions occur through and in virtual spaces that core emotional need within us has nowhere else to lean.

Thus we tend to receive online responses with far more emotional investment than we use when sending them.

Reaction Seeking vs The Pursuit of Understanding

Online platforms, especially social media ones, function on one primary currency, engagement. The companies shepherding online spaces make their profits through the constant active engagement of their users. They don’t want you sitting and staring at one thing for hours at a time they want you clicking and then clicking on something else and then on something else…

Why post one item containing thousands of characters which people will interact with and react to only once when you could post dozens of items with only a hundred or so characters, each generating their own new update ‘ping’ and opportunity for reactions? Twitter. Cough, cough. Twitter.

These platforms are designed to encourage constant active engagement so our methods of interacting with them are shaped by that, and what gets practiced becomes habit. We are not encouraged to consider and contemplate but to react and post rapidly and frequently. Since reactions of any kind are portrayed as the main metric of importance we are also encouraged to react and post in ways which provoke as much impulsive reacting as possible.

When reacting is rewarded more than understanding, and being reacted to more than being understood, connecting with one another gets pushed aside in favor of simply seeking attention.

Disinhibition Born of Anonymity

The ‘any attention/reaction is good attention/reaction’ paradigm gets exponentially exacerbated by the complete lack of direct social consequence offered by the anonymity and ‘presence by proxy’ of virtual spaces. We can be completely masked in our interactions or simply comment and log off without any direct or immediate consequence or engagement. We don’t even have to revisit our comments ever again if we don’t wish to, except perhaps to check the stats of how many times they have been clicked, retweeted, or emojied.

The combination of anonymity and ‘reaction = reward’ grotesquely emboldens the most impulsive and reactionary parts of our nature. Setting up the reactions of the online mob as the most valued reward renders the reaction of the actual person the comments are directed at virtually meaningless, thus encouraging people to say absolutely horrendous things they would never in a million years be cruel enough to say in person because the amount of reaction from the ‘crowd’ is what matters most.

A space to act with faceless impunity will inevitably get exploited but designing that space to reward the most outrageous behavior is a recipe for dangerous and potentially harmful attention seeking.

Explosive Scale

In any societal group there will always be those whose insecurities drive them to tear down others based on any sign of difference or weakness in an attempt to grasp at any self-protective feeling of power, no matter how false. It can be painful and difficult enough to deal with when it comes from those in our direct social circles. But thanks to this ‘global access’ and crowd mentality incentivized by ‘any reaction is good’ we can find ourselves faced with not just a few bullies or a dozen but instead hundreds or possibly thousands. Or in the most horrific scenarios tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and possibly even millions.

People who have never met us, and never will, are able to offer their unfettered and reaction-seeking comments on someone they have never met and never will. Not only have we not fully figured out as a culture and society the proper amount of weight to give comments from complete strangers but if, gods forbid, the scale of it rises into four figures or beyond there ends up becoming just too much of it to effectively respond to, especially when our reaction wasn’t really the one being sought in the first place.

And if something takes on that kind of flash-fire momentum it can become far more than just an issue of online commentary it can impact all aspects of our lives. The companies we work for can be pressured to fire us, the context and content of the story in question can get so immensely distorted it irrevocably damages or destroys our reputation, the comments may stop coming but the impact can be near permanent.

As long as there is fear and insecurity there will be those who bully people they perceive as weaker or different. The advent of the online world has brought us many amazing things but one of the demons it has also brought is an unfettered space for that insecurity driven lashing out to thrive, freed of direct consequence by the mask of anonymity.

Bullying being virtual doesn’t make the damage it does is any less real. The only true antidote for it is being reminded of and faced with the real person on the other end and with the actual impact it has on them.

No small feat when we are being pushed more and more into virtual spaces and away from direct and actual ones.

Written by

A professional dancer, choreographer, theatre creator, and featured TEDx speaker with an honours degree in psychology, two black belts, and a lap-top.

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