Dr. Linda Answers Your Questions on Trolling And Cyber Bullying

(Image credit: REX/Shutterstock)

Ever been reduced to tears by a callous Facebook comment? Or found yourself wondering why your child's face has begun to fall the instant their phone chimes? You're not alone. New research has pinpointed October as the peak month for cyberbullying, as more than 40% of adult web users report having fallen victim to internet trolls. It seems that, however old we may be, there's no escaping them. We speak to psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos, the ambassador for Internet Matters' new anti-cyberbullying campaign, to discuss why online trolling appears to be on the rise, and what we can do about it.

How has technology caused the nature of bullying to change over recent years?

You can't switch off. It used to be that you'd come home and you couldn't hear the taunts of the bully. Now, they can be posted online for literally the whole world to see and so the enormity of it and the scope just feels much more insurmountable.

Why do you think October is a peak month for cyberbullying?

Number one, kids are going back to school, where a lot of bullying begins - they're forming their friendship groups and so on - but I think also it's a time, especially for kids going to secondary school, that they get their first phones. If they've not had time to chat to parents about the pitfalls - how to use them, how to interact on social media - then you see a rise for that reason. How can parents help to protect their children from cyber bullying?

Speak to your children about the differences between interacting online and offline. Offline, we see people's faces; they give us cues about how they're feeling. Online, that doesn't happen, which means it's much easier to say something mean or to do something that you wouldn't normally do.

Also, there are forms of bullying that don't exist in the face to face world. It may be that I've dropped you from a chat where all our other friends are speaking. It may be that I've not invited you to a party and I've posted lots of pictures of that party for everyone to see, or I've tagged people on a joke and not you - we can bully by exclusion as well, and kids might not know this right away, so discuss with them that these things are out there. How can parents help their child to deal with being bullied online?

Immediately get them to stop interacting with the bully. That's key - you don't want to feed the bully. Then get them to keep records of what's been said, taking screenshots or printing out texts.

Get them to block the bully - most social media websites allow this now, and even certain games consoles. Ensure that you're speaking to them about it - and how they're feeling about it - so that they feel supported.

And, I think really importantly, don't deny your child technology. For us, there's an online and offline world. For young people, it's just one world - a lot of young people won't speak about online bullying for fear of being denied their technology, so make sure you don't do that.

Are there any warning signs to look out for?

If you find them being really agitated around their technology, or you notice any changes in technology use - being too obsessed with it or trying to avoid it altogether, if you find them being withdrawn, not wanting to go to school, if you see their grades suffering, if they look anxious - any of these can be signs. What can you do if you suspect your child may be a cyber bully?

Sit down with your child and get them to understand that some things they say online they wouldn't dream of saying face to face. Get them talking about empathising, get them to understand that joining in is as bad as leading an attack sometimes. A lot of kids have said a mean thing online and don't consider it cyber bullying. Explain that a nasty message you could read over and over again - and millions of people could read over and over again - has a lot more power than an off-the-cuff remark to your friend and as such, being able to apologise and stop that behaviour is key. I'd urge parents to go on internetmatters.org - there's a lot of guidance on there on what to do in both cases.

Increasingly, we're finding that this phenomenon isn't confined to children and young people, aren't we? Almost half of adult web users have also reported experiencing online harassment.

It's inevitable, right? Anyone who engages in the online world is going to experience abuse, and I think you've got to understand that people who are willing to be horrible to you without knowing you don't really deserve to be in your headspace. I think increasingly people are recognising that - that for someone to go out there and be horrible and mean, clearly they're not in a great space themselves. So there's a sense of being able to step back from that and distance yourself.

I think it's about ensuring that your identity is bound up with the reactions of people who really know you and really care and not with the reactions of people who may be reacting to three words that you've said or a picture that they think is indicative of something and that don't really know you.

Can you give us some tips on how to deal with online abuse as an adult? Should we respond to or ignore negative comments?

Definitely ignore! Ignore and block. They're not paying rent in your head - evict them! You know those big toilet doors everyone scribbles on? Why would you take that seriously? If you can block that stuff and not see it then do that. If it's someone that you know then obviously address it - sit down, tell them how you're feeling. But if it's random comments from people that don't know you then one of the biggest buffers you have is a choice of whether or not to internalise something from someone who has no clue about who you are - that's a really important power and you need to see it as such. The less you engage, the better.

Recent surveys have found that women tend to experience more personal attacks online, and report feeling more disturbed by negative comments. Why do we seem to be more affected?

I think sometimes women are seen as easier targets. I would argue that this is not necessarily indicative of society as a whole but of a vocal minority who are on these sites. I think if it's violent, if it's personal, if you can report it, absolutely do. If you can block it, absolutely do. And certainly don't let it stop you being who you are, advocating for what you want. Research has indicated that around half of all trolls, including those who engage in misogynistic abuse, may be female - what do you think spurs some women to attack other women online?

I guess it's because the anonymity gives you that platform. If you have unresolved issues around your own identity and gender identity - if you feel oppressed yourself - you have this medium of being able to feel powerful by being mean to somebody. I think it's interesting that it's a 50/50 divide - it's slightly soul destroying that so much misogyny comes from other women. One has to wonder if this isn't about jumping on bandwagons. I wonder to what extent they're actually thinking about what they're saying or whether they're just following herd mentality. Do you think the impetus behind online bullying differs between children and adults?

I think with adults a lot of the time it's about this notion that "I'm going to seem smarter than you or worthier than you" or competitive compassion or whatever it is - righteous indignation. I think for adults it's very much about establishing identity - "I'm the kind of person who is appalled that you wouldn't hashtag this with..." whatever - something that's politically correct or whatever the flavour of the month is depending on whatever agenda is out there.

I think with kids they're just learning and as a consequence the power dynamics that existed on the playground are being played out online - I don't think a lot of them recognise the enormity of the impact that it has. I think for adults the impact is precisely what they're trying to get.

Dr Linda Papadopoulos is supporting the campaign by Internet Matters helping parents deal with cyberbullying. The not-for-profit organisation, backed by BT, Sky, TalkTalk, Virgin, Google and the BBC, has compiled new guidance, comprehensive information and resources for parents, available to download at www.internetmatters.org/issues/cyberbullying.