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Online harassment and trolling: how to handle cyber-bullying as an adult

by Erin Lindsay
14th Feb 2020

Cyber-bullying is something that every parent fears for their child, but online abuse is not restricted to children — adult trolling is also a massive problem

The word ‘troll’, once reserved for childhood fairy tales and ’90s toy fads, has taken on a whole new meaning in the age of the internet.

Online trolling, the act of antagonising other internet users by posting offensive or inflammatory content, has become increasingly popular in social media spaces, with a number of high profile cases taking place around the world.

Online, where anyone can create an account under a fake name and enjoy total anonymity in their dealings with other users, is a perfect space for bullies and harassers to act out their abusive tendencies — and the victims are often left in the dark about how to fix the issue.

Characteristics of online trolling

In a social media-obsessed age, we are all spending more time online. When a child experiences cyber-bullying, the common response is to encourage them to step away from the screens — but as an adult, where many of us need to use the internet and social media regularly for work, this proves difficult. Experiencing trolling and cyber-bullying can be hurtful, upsetting and worrying at any age.

According to a survey taken last year, almost one in four people in the UK have experienced some sort of cyberbullying, with the most common form being harassment, where the victim is sent abusive or hateful messages. Online harassment can take many forms — hate speech, sexual remarks, explicit or upsetting content, stalking, threatening messages, either through social media, private messages, or emails.

Many people have also experienced online harassment in the form of a troll publishing their personal details online publicly, or in publishing defamatory information about them online.

The Love Island effect

Ex-Love Island contestant and online influencer Yewande Biala has had first-hand experience of the type of damage online trolling can do. Yewande this week took on the role of ambassador for Virgin Media’s Safer Internet Day. Love Island contestants, who gain thousands of online followers and are the subject of social media discourse and headlines for weeks following their time on the show, can experience a severe impact on their mental health. Following the suicides of two ex-contestants over the past two years, the show has made efforts to provide contestants with mental health support going forward, including therapy sessions and social media training.

When she left the Love Island villa in 2019, Biala’s profile had been significantly raised on social media — but this came with plenty of trolls. “When I came out of the villa, I had never experienced anything like that before. It was very foreign — I knew when I went into Love Island that I would have to be careful about feeding into any mean comments, because I had seen other people in a similar position do that, and it never made things any better.

“I was very lucky that I received social media training from the producers when I left the villa, which taught me about blocking certain words and hiding comments — the basics that you think everyone should know, but they don’t. I made a pact with myself that I was just going to steer clear of looking at what people were saying about me — lots of people search their name and read into the mean comments, but I know, for my own mental health, that I can’t do that.”

The law

The law is still catching up to cybercrime in Ireland. The nature of social media means that it is very difficult to try and convict a troll for online abuse, but legislation has been progressing in this area. It is possible for Irish employers to discipline employees and even fire them for their online activities outside work (such as trolling and harassment), and there have been a number of convictions made for different types of cyber-bullying, including the misuse of social media in the workplace, and defamation on Facebook.

Late last year, internet troll Brendan Doolin was jailed for his harassment of six Irish female writers over the course of six years. Doolin had sent hundreds of abusive messages to the writers, and had stalked the women, sending threatening messages and items to their home addresses. As well as serving a jail sentence of three years, Doolin has been banned from contacting any of the victims for the rest of his life.

What do I do?

If you find yourself being harassed online and are unsure of what to do, there are a number of things you can do. Yewande recommends keeping your page on private if possible, and only engaging with friends and family online. “If you aren’t confident with a picture or something you’ve said being seen in 10-20 years time, don’t post it,”  she said. “It’s different for everyone individually, but I recommend steering clear of mean comments, and blocking any users or words that you don’t want to see.”

The HSE recommends reporting any abusive content to the social media platform to be removed — you can do this on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube, if the content is harmful, abusive, untrue, or inappropriate.

Try not to retaliate to someone online who is trolling you — do not respond to their messages other than to calmly ask them to stop. Keep a record of the abusive messages, including screenshots of comments and messages, in case you may need future evidence of the trolling.

If you feel unsafe as a result of online harassment, you can contact An Garda Síochana and seek legal advice. Remember, being harassed online is not your fault, and there is no excuse for that kind of abusive behaviour.

Read more: How to handle adult bullying

Read more: ‘I was completely annihilated’: The toxic truth about ‘supportive’ online mummy groups

Read more: The rise of Internet rage: Why trolls need to stop hiding behind ‘just my opinion’ excuses