CW: This article contains talk of mental health and suicide. If you are affected by the issues raised in this article, please call Samaritans at 116 123.
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. That's what they say, but how true is that in this day and age?
For years, several organisations, public figures, surveys and schools have spoken out about cyberbullying and the impact it has. And yet, nothing changes. When someone sees a news story about yet another suicide due to cyberbullying, they might retweet the story with a sad emoji and the hashtag #StopCyberbullying. Then, in the same breath, they will go over to Instagram and tell a celebrity how fat and ugly they look in that dress. Online bullying is back in the spotlight with Little Mix star Jesy Nelson releasing a documentary exploring the impact of cyberbullying, but how can we stop it? Whose shoulders does that responsibility ultimately fall on?
The relationship between cyberbullying and celebrity culture
Although there has been a lot of talk about how cyberbullying impacts young people (usually those at school-age who experience cyber-bullying as an extension of physical bullying), the online bullying of those who are thrust into fame at a vulnerable age is scarcely addressed. Whilst it is expected for those in the public eye to be scrutinised by magazines, newspapers and talk-show hosts, social media takes this to another level. It isn't just a few tabloids criticising celebrities anymore.
The public and interactive nature of social media mean hundreds and thousands of people are a mere click away from these rising stars. This can be a positive thing, with online 'fandom' communities being able to communicate with their idol, but there is also a very negative flip-side to this. Everyone has their own opinion—not all of them nice—and the accessibility of social media means that every bad thought one has towards a celebrity is broadcast and made public, meaning that there is no sense of respite for celebrities who spend all day being harassed by paparazzi and the media.
I think the reason that cyberbullying towards public figures have spiralled so much is because people assume that celebrities are untouchable. They think that with millions of comments and followers on every post, them calling someone chubby has no consequence. They never dream that celebrities are actually reading what they put—surely their one comment is just a drop in an ocean of compliments?
However, online trolling is less like a drop in the ocean and more like mud that sticks. Although their accounts may be full of press shots and shared with a PR team, one needs to remember that there is a real person behind these posts who get notified of and reads every insult, death threat and criticism. They might get countless compliments and have all the money in the world: but critical comments are the ones they'll remember.
Love Island is a prime example of online bullying of celebrities going out of control. Several stars have come out and talked about the bullying they've dealt with and the subsequent impact that it has had on them. 2018 runner-up Megan Barton-Hanson has opened up about the slut-shaming she has experienced since leaving the show and even teamed up with Glamour magazine on an anti-bullying campaign. 2018 was also the year two Love Island stars—Mike Thallatisis and Sophie Gradon—ended their own lives. Inquests are ongoing and many have come out addressing the show's lack of aftercare, but that hasn't stopped people from continuing to bully contestants. 2019 runner-up Molly-May had to go to therapy following her experience with online trolls, whilst Amy Hart has stated her intention to raise awareness of cyber-bullying in schools following extensive trolling of her own appearance.
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To everyone who has taken time out of their day to point out my flaws - thank you. I know you probably think that the comments you make about my appearance don’t get read, well they do - and they hurt. Not just me, but my friends and family, too. I’ve seen so many comments telling me to get my teeth fixed, and they’ve been heard. Loud and clear. I’ve actually been unhappy with them for years, but I haven’t really been in a position to get them sorted out. I know it’s probably difficult to see me as a person when all you know about me is what you’ve seen on TV, online and when I pop up on your social media feed. To you, I’m probably just a picture or a video... but the reality is I’m just an ordinary girl from Worthing whose dreams are coming true. The vast majority of comments I receive are absolutely lovely - and I read them too.. so thank you! I guess what I want to say is… just have a bit consideration when you’re leaving comments on people's posts - whether they have 1 follower or 1 million followers. I have a mirror, I know what I look like - and I’m happy with it. But, like everyone, I have my insecurities. Amz xo
Many will say that if people choose to put themselves in the public eye, they should expect abuse. However, in recent years, actors like Kelly Marie Tran and Grace Saif have been bullied off social media due to threats and abuse aimed at them—simply because people didn't the characters they portrayed. In addition to this, the disabled son of Katie Price has received online abuse, kidnap and death threats for merely existing in the public eye. Nobody asks to be bullied, but when people target celebrities who have little to nothing to do with their actual grievance, it serves to show how senseless online bullying is and how much it has spiralled out of control.
Why is cyber-bullying so alluring?
What makes cyber-bullying different from other kinds of bullying is the fact that people can hide behind their words, with 65% of young people admitting that they act differently online than they do in real life. They can make a false online persona and feel the need to live up for their 'savage' reputation or create a throwaway or 'burner' account. Either way, there is a distance between who they are as a person and who they are online. They feel anonymous, and with anonymity comes a lack of consequence. If people feel like they are never going to be held to account for their actions, then they won't bother to think about what they're doing.
In a study by Young Minds, Baroness Harding said: The digital world tends to exaggerate human behaviour. The combination of either partial or total anonymity and the sheer global reach of the digital world means that people often say things in a more direct way online than they would face-to-face, and people with particular interests can now reach a global community with ease…
Is there enough protection against those experiencing cyber-bullying?
Although laws such as the Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 can help in certain cases of cyber-bullying—such as comments causing 'distress and anxiety' or online stalking—there is no blanket law that specifically addresses trolling and cyber-bullying. Katie Price is currently in talks with MPs about 'Harvey's Law'—potential legislation to specifically tackle cyber-bullying—but as of now there is no legislation, and that law would focus more on disabled people and less on the general population.
Furthermore, even if it was illegal, things like proxy servers, not using their own computer or 'burner accounts' would make it difficult for the police to trace online bullies. In addition to this, the volume of online harassment is arguably too much for the police to control.
On the flip-side, 85% of young people think the responsibility falls on social media companies, and that they need to do more to tackle cyberbullying. Indeed, celebrities such as Gemma Collins, who have experienced severe online trolling—are proposing a boycott of social media until companies do more to stop cyber-bullying. But, with all the major social media platforms having tools to report, block and ban cyberbullies, there is that question of how much more they can do to control it.
Impact and prelevance of cyber-bullying:
In Jesy's documentary concerning cyber-bullying, she notes the worrying statistic of seven in 10 young people experiencing cyber-bullying. A lot of people might say statistics such as this are sensationalised or exaggerated, but Ditchthelabel.org, an international anti-bullying charity, estimates that around 5.43 million young people in the UK have been the victims of cyberbullying. As well as this, they report that 1.26 million people are suffering extreme cyberbullying on a daily basis. Cyber-bullying is getting progressively worse as technology goes further, with Childline has seen an 87% increase in calls concerning cyberbullying in the last three years.
Cyber-bullying also has some worrying correlations concerning mental health, with those who have been cyber-bullied being 2.3 times more likely to attempt suicide. Sian Waterhouse, for example, was a 16-year-old girl featured in the documentary. She took her own life as a result of a cyber-bullying campaign by friends and, in the inquest, her father said she was a happy girl before she got a smartphone and was exposed to the dark and toxic environment of social media.
Following her own experience with cyber-bullying, Jesy listed some of the impacts cyber-bullying had on her life, including:
- an eating disorder
- a suicide attempt
- missing shows
- demanding reshoots of everything because she was concerned with her body image
When she won The X Factor, she received 101 abusive Facebook messages criticising her weight, appearance and telling her to kill herself. She notes how with the daily online abuse, 'my brain started to believe everything I was reading'.
She became consumed with the bullying she received online, with her mother saying that she felt like she 'lost' Jesy to social media and that she was 'addicted to what people are saying about her'. In her first return to The X Factor, she describes starving herself for four days and hoping that the online community would notice her weight loss. However, the trolls—including right-wing journalist Katie Hopkins—continued to criticise her appearance following the performance, comparing her to ET and Miss Piggy.
Featured Image Credit: BBC/October Films