By Craig Fearn MEd BSc Hons PGCE QTLS EMCC (Professional).
Craig has over 15 years’ experience as a mental health and wellbeing mentor and trainer and is a senior member of the European Mentoring and Coaching Council and also The Federation of Drug and Alcohol Professionals. Additionally, he holds the international gold standard qualifications, ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) and Mental Health First Aid, as well as being a qualified teacher, with many years of management experience in various industries.
There’s that ping. It’s happening again, in front of your family, your parents, your kids – and you feel powerless to prevent it. Online bullying is nasty, insidious, and sometimes seems inescapable.
We’re seeing an increase in cyberbullying, and it’s not just among teenagers and school kids. Over a quarter of British adults report experiencing some form of online bullying – and it can leave people feeling just as upset, isolated and confused as face-to-face intimidation or insults.
The invasive nature of digital bullying makes it especially hard to deal with, leaving victims with a sense that there’s no escape. As long as there’s a phone, tablet or desktop in the room, the cyberbullies can reach you.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to manage online bullying. We’ll take a closer look at this latest form of an age-old problem, and then examine some techniques to address it.
The (hidden) faces of online bullying
The rise of social media has lured the trolls out from under the bridges. Safely hidden behind their screens, often thousands of miles away from their target, the virtual culture has normalised a way of communicating online that most wouldn’t contemplate face-to-face. It would take a bold bully to hiss racial insults on the shop floor these days, but it’s oh-so-easy to hit send.
The bully could be a colleague, an ex or a former friend, or even a complete stranger on social media. Cyberbullying can be clandestine (the equivalent of whispers in the locker room) or overt (designed to publicly shame, which at its most extreme can be sharing confidential words or images, or even ‘revenge porn’).
It can be as simple as a piece of gossip spread on social media, but if the effect is to make someone feel hurt, humiliated, scared or upset, that’s online bullying.
Online bullying in the workplace
Online, internet or cyberbullying has become a real concern for every parent and carer. Its insidious nature, coupled with a young person’s natural reticence to share, makes it hard to manage.
Just as the scourge of the playground morphs into that egregious adult equivalent, the workplace bully, likewise online bullying doesn’t just affect children and young people. Online victimisation also occurs in the workplace. It’s harder to identify, and far harder to walk away from, than face-to-face harassment.
Workplace cyberbullying can include ‘accidentally’ being copied into criticising emails or leaving people out of essential communiques. It can extend to unpleasant comments about an individual’s social media posts, or sharing the said posts with others with the intent to embarrass. Cyberbullies disseminate photographs, spread gossip and start rumours.
Management isn’t above this behaviour. Top-down online bullying can take many forms, for example, emails highlighting poor behaviour, or giving out unachievable tasks. This might include setting tasks last thing on a Friday or just before annual leave, leaving the target of the message to stew or stress.
According to UK employment advisory body ACAS, employers need to widen their bullying policy to include online harassment and victimisation, including outside the workplace.
How online bullying affects individuals
With online bullying, there is no safe space. It’s very hard to turn your back on all forms of electronic communication, and so home is no haven from the school, college, workplace or social club bully.
How does this affect the individual who’s being targeted? At work, it can lead to feelings of being undermined. If it’s a case of ‘gaslighting’, such as making someone feel they’re not up to the job, there can be a drop in performance.
If the bullying is being carried out by a pack, the individual can become isolated and withdrawn. The social side of work suffers, as do those all-important workplace relationships. It feels easier to leave the job than stay and face constant unpleasantness.
There are also social impacts to bullying. The bullied person can start to feel uncomfortable sharing anything online, in case it falls into the wrong news feed. This is an example of adjusting your own behaviour to work around the haters. Another common reaction is the feeling that you need to ‘toughen up’. It’s ‘only an email’. It’s ‘only a comment’. This leads to feelings of inadequacy and weakness.
At its worst, the fact that cyberbullying has no boundaries can lead to a permanent sense of insecurity. The individual is on constant high alert, adrenalin pumping as they wait for that ‘ping’. An increase in feelings of anxiety and/or depression is almost inevitable. According to DitchTheLabel, 37% of those who reported bullying also developed social anxiety.
How to cope mentally with online bullying
Even a single unpleasant comment or email can leave us feeling hurt, sad and attacked. There are several practical measures you can take to prevent or deal with online bullying (we’ll come to those in a moment), but it’s just as important to find ways to manage it emotionally.
The most important message is: don’t bite back. Our first response is to fire back a reply, perhaps in a similar tone. This will only escalate matters – and as we all know, bullies thrive on attention. Don’t give them any by replying. Take deep breaths and ignore the message.
However, try to avoid the instinct to delete hurtful words. Print out or save any abusive messages, comments, emails etc, especially if they’re connected to work.
If it’s a work email that needs a reply, again, don’t reply directly but share it in confidence with a manager or the HR team. Their support will give you an essential emotional bolster while preventing a potentially harmful dialogue from escalating.
It’s difficult to think rationally when you’re being bullied, which is understandable. As many of us were told back in the days of the playground, bullying is about the bully, not the victim. Bullying speaks volumes about the perpetrator’s emotional health and confidence, not yours. For example, a piece of malicious gossip highlights the insecurities and attention-seeking needs of the bully.
Seek support from friends, family and colleagues. Cyberbullying often intends to isolate the individual, and sharing your concerns prevents this. In some instances, speaking to a counsellor can help you to see that the problem doesn’t stem from you.
It’s also empowering to know that you can take action. In the workplace, tell your manager, HR team or union rep. Anonymous cyberbullies can be reported to your service provider and even to the police.
Practical tips to avoid online bullying
The advice generally given to teens on social media is to set a curfew. No internet use after a certain time in the evening, and no connected devices in the bedroom. If we all adopt this safeguard as adults, we’re creating safe spaces again.
Check your privacy settings, and don’t be afraid to block bullies. You can always stay off social media completely until this passes – because it will pass.
Help to create a face-to-face culture in your workplace. If it’s the modus operandi to get up, walk across the room and actually speak to a colleague, the whole online comms culture diminishes – and with it, the risk of bullying. (It’s also more enjoyable.)
As Acas recommends, organisations should have policies and guidelines that clearly set out what is unacceptable online behaviour – including outside the physical boundary of the workplace. Do you have this in your workplace? (Any HR leaders reading this, please take note!)
If you or someone who know has been affected by online bullying, please get in touch with us. We can offer you support and advice, and help you find solutions to this distressing experience.