I clutched my cell phone in my hand and stared at the screen. My adrenaline-spiked response system alerted me to do something. Fight. Respond. Defend. I was curled up on my couch in the middle of the night, face aglow from my phone’s screen. No threat existed in my immediate surroundings, but rather, it emanated from my phone, illuminating and ensnaring.
The menacing comments weren’t even directed toward me, but at my brother, his fiancee, and their son. The man writing these vile words was an ex-boyfriend of my brother’s fiancee from years ago, and sometimes he obsessively targeted aggression toward her and her new family.
My nephew is only 4 years old. I don’t have the heart to recount in detail all the insidious things the poster wrote about them. How an adult can make comments about a child, wishing death, disease, and drug-use upon him will never make sense to me.
This type of abuse may come packaged differently, marked by the Instagram icon of a rainbow camera. But a pixelated threat is still a threat, and the body and mind respond to it the same as a physical threat.
Before this particular evening, I approached cyberbullying with bafflement. Raised in the ’90s, it made sense to my pre-social media brain to make the insults go away by logging off, powering down, and silencing the threat with a press of a button. I wondered why people who were victims of online harassment didn’t just go outside and surround themselves in tangible, real life. I implored these teens who are increasingly harmed by cyberbullying to just look away from the screen.
Not until I confronted cyberbullying up close did it dawn on me how naive that mindset was. The threats I read were written beneath vintage-aesthetic Instagram videos, and I couldn’t easily pull myself away. Caught in a loop by 15-second snippets of video, I obsessively refreshed the page to see if this person on the internet would continue his verbal assault toward my family members.
Dr. Sanam Hafeez, New York City-based clinical psychologist, has years of experience addressing psychological implications connected to the modern lifestyle, like social media use. “The danger here is that when bullied, one is put into a consistent state of fight or flight,” Hafeez says. “This cellular exhaustion reduces hormonal production leading to tremendous stress with long lasting implications such as adrenal fatigue. The body starts to convert other hormones when stressed, such as progesterone, which is responsible for our sense of well-being and happiness.”
My former armchair-psychologist advice of just pressing a button and ignoring the bullying, dismissed the reality of physical and mental response. I reduced cyberbullying to nothing more than a mild irritant that scratched at the nerves only as long as you allowed it to. The ignorance of my mindset was felt that night on the couch, as a maddening pulse of trapped energy surged through me in the middle of the night.
I considered three ways of dealing with the cyberbully. The first, get into an internet fight, to no resolution, and draw more eyes to the spectacle. Second, respond in person, likely escalate the tension and possibly end up on a police report. Third, report it on Instagram as harassment.
My husband advised me to stay out of it. To let him continue to shout into his corner of the internet. But doing nothing was the most difficult reaction while my body was pumping adrenaline.
As counterintuitive as it may be, sympathizing with the cyberbully may help to disengage, and to quell those immediate reactions. This is not intended to excuse behavior, rather it’s an attempt to understand cyberbullying on a deeper level than simply blaming a culprit. In my family’s case, the poster suffered from mental illness, and was prone to aggressive outbursts.Every option felt like submission to unchecked hostility, but I chose the third route and reported the posts. A day later a message from the IG team said that the videos didn’t violate community standards. If threats to children are the norms of the online community, then what kind of digital communities are we creating and living in?
I didn’t respond to the Instagram videos. My brother didn’t respond, nor did anyone in our family. A voiceless surrender to written assaults.
These aggressions loiter and linger in the abstract of the internet, unable to be wrangled in and dealt with in a healthy way. Cyberbullying looms, there are no safe spaces, no comforts of home when verbal abusers can barge right into your awareness at any time. For younger people whose online profiles are a growing critical component to their social lives, cyberbullying can equate to being ostracized from their community.
“The body, when stressed and put into constant threat mode, is doing whatever it takes to survive,” Hafeez says. “When bullying robs one of their ability to produce Progesterone, the body is thrown out of whack. This is where the long-term damage comes into play and when we start to see chronic anxiety, depression, compromised immune system and depletion of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that handles memory.”
I didn’t give cyberbullying impact the seriousness it deserved. When I should have had sympathy or belief for cyberbullying victims, instead I held on to some 90s-pretentious idea that the way I grew up, without the influence of social media, was the right way. It shouldn’t have taken a family member being attacked online for me to analyze this.
I don’t have to check his page to know that the words are still there. Just because the screen goes dark, doesn’t mean the verbal abuse is extinguished, too.