Dirty Little Secret — Why adults are worse than kids at cyberbullying.

The surprising truth behind adult “cyberbullying” and its impact on all of us professionally, socially, and sexually.

There are millions of adult victims of non-consensual image sharing in the US.

When adults hear about cyberbullying, it typically evokes thoughts of children mistreating each other online, texting each other with damaging information, or spreading rumors that can have a lasting negative impact on their lives. Much of the impact is often irreversible. We’ve seen countless studies that measure the damage that has been done to far too many kids, sometimes resulting in severe emotional distress, loss of relationships, self-harm, or suicide. Adults often wonder why, year by year, after a myriad of awareness campaigns exposing the risks of how insensitive and harmful this behavior can be, why the problem continues to grow. Perhaps adults should first look within themselves for the answers as adult cyberbullying is statistically a much larger problem. Hear me out, the numbers are unnerving.

It’s important to understand some of the reasons how and why we harm each other online. There are two general forms of online bullying in my estimation, anonymous and personal. Much of what is discussed, particularly amongst the celebrity ranks is anonymous, whereby fans or “haters” respond to social media posts with scathing commentary, perhaps about their abilities, slut or fat-shaming them, and most often it’s just vile comments that can have an impact on anyone, particularly those looking for approval by their fans and followers. It’s simply human nature to be insulted or harmed, particularly in public, and you don’t have to be a celebrity to be shamed by strangers. Hashtags can invite unwelcome comments, and those with larger followings can have thousands of people that simply want to attack the individual based on several reasons, very few of which have a basis for hate.

The more damaging form of online bullying, in my opinion, is personal attacks. These are from people we know that have an agenda to harm someone based on anything from jealousy to revenge, and most often occur after a breakup, but too often happen amongst friends or rivals. People that we know, people that have access to the private and most personal details of our lives, have the greatest ability to harm us.

Years ago I was the victim of online abuse whereby my ex posted things online about me that were vulgar and deliberate, and intended to harm. I found out the hard way that I had no rights when it came to recourse as the damage was done and I had no way to remove what was shared. Currently, in most cases, we have a First Amendment right in the United States to destroy anyone online. Defamation suits can only be won when a victim, at the very least, can prove that someone knowingly lied and distributed these lies and as a result, the victim experienced economic damages. No matter how rude or inappropriate, if what was shared was truthful or based on the opinion of someone, it is protected. One instance where states have created laws for protection is in the case of revenge porn, but those laws are often difficult to prosecute and result in small penalties, often misdemeanors. Imagine going to a police officer with such an embarrassing circumstance and having to go through what could end up being a horrific public experience all over again. And honestly, if someone wants to harm you online and is dissuaded by the revenge porn laws, they’ll gladly find another way to shame you to your friends, family, and public instead.

THE IMPACT ON ADULTS

Adults face much of the social suffering that a child would face when being harmed publicly online, with the bonus of having to deal with the possible professional impact of a damaging post. The old saying “A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on” applies because after all, on social media, the “mob” has an instant opinion then moves on to the next topic without waiting for a response from the victim. Some studies show that 90% of managers check the digital footprint of new hires before making a hiring decision. In the case of an adult, cyberbullying has some additional elements with which they may have to manage, and managing the aftermath of damaging information that has gone viral, whether the audience is large or small, is next to impossible, and most often everlasting.

We are now seeing celebrities brutalized on social media, and some of them leaving the platforms altogether after the pressure and pain of negativity can cause a flight response, once the fight has run its course. We’ve also seen celebrities like Christie Teigen get caught up in the opposite end cyberbullying spectrum, which shows that none of us are immune to the motivations and temptations behind cyberbullying. After all, as you’ll read below, cyberbullying is a drug.

Adults also expose themselves to tremendous risk online. In a recent Match.com study, 26% of single adults online have sent a nude photo to someone. That’s 32 million people at risk. A similar study by CiPHR shows that 10% of adults aged 18–29 (3 million people total) have had someone threaten to, or have had some expose nude photos of them online. According to Lindy Morrison Study, this doesn’t even touch upon the 37% of people who reported having an “ex” post something damaging about them online after a breakup.

The impact on minority groups and LGBTQ is even greater. According to the same CiPHR study mentioned above, people in the LGB community are 4 times more likely than heterosexuals to have damaging rumors spread about them online, and 5.5 times more likely to be sexually harassed. People in the black community experience at a much greater rate, being hurt online emotionally or having had damaging rumors spread against them online than white people do.

You could spend a lifetime picking up the pieces from one event that led to catastrophe, but the trauma is certain.

WHY WE BULLY AND THE SCIENCE OF REVENGE

There are many reasons people harm others online, and in many circumstances, the perpetrator often is convinced that they are justified in their endeavors. In the event of anonymous bullying things that could normally be debated with a civil discussion devolve into an online battle for moral or intellectual superiority. Strangers may dislike something you say and will attack you in a way disproportionate to how much it offended you. Jon Ronson, the author of So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed discusses how cognitive dissonance, or one’s ability to justify doing things that they would otherwise consider immoral, ends up harming others online. For instance, one may think publicly shaming someone is wrong, but because they side on a topic that others hate so much (think politics or race issues), you are justified in saying dehumanizing things, like Nazi or bigot. People immediately go to extremes online, much as they do in cars when they are cut off — they scream and give the middle finger, which is not something they would do walking down the street, but only when they are insulted in a car or on social media. Our behaviors change online, and people often think they are being heroic for attacking someone’s character when they have never met them to truly understand who they are as human beings. After all, we are less likely to empathize with someone’s emotional pain when we perceive them participating in ideas that are inconsistent with our values and beliefs.

When it comes to personal cyberbullying with someone you know, it’s often out of jealousy or revenge. This could resonate with a friend that you’ve been harboring resentment towards or an ex that mistreated you or was deserted by. This isn’t just happening on topics at a national level like Trump or race relations, it’s happening on a small scale, interpersonal level to regular folks, related to their personal and private lives. Millions are impacted daily.

Revenge rears itself as an ugly beast, scientifically and socially. When someone we dislike is being harmed, it activates the reward center of the brain, much like drugs or sex. We literally can get high from dopamine while destroying someone’s reputation. And like with most drugs, when the high wears off you’re looking for more, and thus begins the downward spiral where two people initiate an ongoing feud online. The old saying by Confucious applies, “Before You Embark On A Journey of Revenge, Dig Two Graves”, as you’ll end up burying yourself because the other party enjoys revenge just as much.

There is an evolutionary purpose or a natural inclination for revenge that we have not yet shaken from our systems, which were designed by our history. Its purpose, however, no longer exists to protect us, but rather just harms us more when exacting that revenge online.

HOW TO END CYBERBULLYING

It’s next to impossible to end cyberbullying, as one person’s bully is another person’s freedom fighter. Some may think exposing an ex is valid while others don’t, and the same goes for the battlefield of ideas, and how we treat people who differ from us. We’ve had many years of awareness campaigns that have only yielded year-by-year increases in cyberbullying. They may be slowing the progress, but it hasn’t decreased in the rate of online harm. There are, however, ways to prevent it from happening to you.

Accountability is the only proven method to curbing any wrongdoing, and we have the ability to hold each other accountable at our fingertips, we just have to agree to do so. Many believe it’s up to online services to monitor and remove harmful content but it may be quite sometime before the technology is available to determine what is necessary to remove from the billions of users across the world, and whether or not it’s in their best interest to get involved in interpersonal disputes outside of their code of conduct terms. If we are to wait for technology to solve the problem, we can at least work on the human solution where adults, both civilians, and politicians alike, take the initiative to curb personal attacks online to set a better example for our youth, but I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for politicians to end damaging political rhetoric anytime soon. As for us, we can.

The rotary phone was a technology ahead of its time, it forced us to take 15 seconds before getting on the call and saying something we regret. We could all use that 15 seconds to make better decisions.

Eric Masella is the CEO of PlayNice App (www.playniceapp.com) the first platform to legally stop cyberbullying by allowing people 18+ to sign simple agreements to never harm each other online. He’s also a father to a 2-year-old son that he desperately wants to protect from being the victim of online abuse in the future.

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Eric Masella

Eric Masella

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CEO/Founder of PlayNice | PlayNice is the first platform to legally stop Cyberbullying | www.playniceapp.com |