Written by Dr Elle Boag, associate professor in Applied Social Psychology at Birmingham City University
So, it’s confirmed, after nine years of being part of the girl band Little Mix, Jesy Nelson has left the building…and why? Because Jesy has had to endure unrelenting trolling and cyberbullying since appearing on The X Factor in 2011.
Jesy has been targeted for the past nine years about her looks, her body shape and her voice…all of which, in my humble opinion, are odd things to target as I think Jesy is beautiful, has an amazing singing voice and has the figure that many women aspire to or would even go ‘under the knife’ to achieve. However, mine and many hundreds of thousands of voices upholding such a view has little effect on the negativity wrought by the lesser number of cruel online bullies who remain anonymous in order to spread their spiteful and incendiary ‘voice’.
Previous research has found that seven in ten young people report experiencing cyberbullying and 26 per cent report feeling suicidal, so clearly the psychological impact of cyberbullying impacts deeply, leading to serious mental health illness such as depression and anxiety, low self-esteem and loneliness.
I remember watching Jesy speaking out about her experiences and the experiences of others in her ‘Odd One Out’ BBC documentary last year and at the time wondering if it would relieve the venom that stalks her on social media platforms. Clearly the answer to that is a resounding no, but how Jesy has navigated her own ‘story’ since then is testament to her tenacity and resilience. So kudos to her fighting spirit and strength of character by saying in the most public way possible ‘enough is enough!’ May she be a standard bearer for those who have to suffer at the hands of cowardly bullies who hide behind anonymised false identities whilst they vomit their vitriolic and often unsubstantiated ‘point of view’, provoking additional spewing of hatred and attacking from others simply ‘because they can’.
So why do cyberbullies and trolls do it? Well to answer that honestly, you would need to ask them…and we don’t really know who they are as they hardly step up and identify themselves…even Katie Hopkins, whose public and hateful outbursts have led to her famously being branded as ‘the most hated Celebrity in Britain’, has the kahunas and honesty to be open about it – albeit as a means of increasing her fame and notoriety as the ‘villain’ perhaps? Anyway, I digress…one of the key reasons that trolls ‘troll’ and cyberbullies ‘bully’ online is because they are anonymous. It has long been recognised that anonymity leads to deindividuation and subsequently all manner of negative behaviour. Just think back to any and all crowd-based disturbance – it is individuals within the crowd that cause the most harm, act in the most violent, antisocial and even criminal ways, simply because they are anonymous, and their individual actions are less detectable.
It is a small number, in the grand scheme of things, of individuals who start the ball rolling by trolling and cyberbullies continue in their wake once the poison has been injected into the comments on social media platforms. As with trolls, cyberbullies are anonymous and their actions are kept, albeit very close to the line, within the parameters of what is ‘legal’. In the UK cyberbullying is not, in itself a crime – shocking, but true. There are specific laws that might be breached by trolling someone online, such as the Malicious Communications Act (1988), the Protection from Harassment Act (1997) or the Communications Act (2003) to name but three – but how do you prosecute someone who is anonymous? Who ensures that their actions are as close to illegal as they can get, without crossing that line? Basically, you can’t!
So why are celebrities such as Jesy being targeted? Is it jealousy? Or is it something else?
In answering this question, I can only voice my own view, one that I have talked about for some time. It may be explained by the fact that we now pretty much all have social media and can ‘connect’ with celebrity accounts across numerous platforms. Celebrities are now immediately accessible. We feed off of their comments and tweets, we see and review their photos as they live their lives in the public sphere, and as such, we feel a far stronger connection with our chosen celebs. For their part they send us ‘blanket statements’ about how much they love us, how much they are thankful for our support of their latest album, movie, TV role, or award. But this is a precarious situation as now we can feel that we ‘own’ our celebrity, that without us they are nothing, that we gave them their status and that we can control their future success or failure.
For celebrities such as Jesy, in 2011 the feelings of ownership can be argued to be particularly important. The public had journeyed with Little Mix from being created on The X Factor, as each band member auditioned as a solo artist, through their auditions as a group, to the judges houses and finally voting for them to win. Social media accounts were created as part of their existence and platforms were regularly updated with news about their journey; this all added to establish a sense of ownership of the band’s successes – “If we don’t vote for them, they will be sent home this week”, and the public developed a need to be connected to them 24-7, expected immediate responses to and likes of comments and tweets, feeling let down if responses are not quick enough. The activity of favourites were compared to fellow band members and the ‘who is your favourite?’ question was raised. Mine, by the way, was always Jesy! A comparator that has always made between females, and is now on the rise for males too, is about idealised (and outdated) looks, body shape and size – for example: too thin, too fat, too small, too big, too short, too tall, too white, too black, too flat-chested, too busty.
That favouritism of one person over another then offers the opportunity for trolls to make their first insinuations and drip-feeding of poison onto the platform – someone responds to them, it feeds their need to add more negativity and so it begins. Cyberbullies then see an opportunity to really dig in with some nastiness, again, by responding, their negativity and hatefulness grows. They positively ‘thrive’ on the defence of their chosen target! They don’t care what you think of them, you don’t know who they are, they could be anyone for all you know! And there is that anonymity again.
So, what, if anything can be done? What can targets of trolls and cyberbullies do? How can they protect themselves from experiencing the psychological harm that comes from persistent pervasive drip-feeding of poison about their looks, their body shape, their personality, their talents, or other personal attribute aimed at bringing about the maximum hurt?
Well, take a leaf out of Jesy’s book – take back control.
I have cobbled together some loose ideas that might help you work through the process of taking back control below, these are simply my thoughts about what you can do, but if they help then that is only a good thing:
1. Make it known that you are coming off of social media and do so straight away. You do not have to justify the decision, and do not wait around for the bullies to respond. Just close your accounts.
2. Now identify what is causing you the most upset. Is it the words? Are they tapping into your own insecurities? Or is it the intention behind their words that is most upsetting? Is it something else? If you don’t know, speak to close others, family or friends, and ask for their view.
3. Once identified, focus on what impact experiencing the cyberbullying and trolling is having on your mental health. Be honest with yourself and speak to others close to you about how they feel it is impacting you. Remember that they see you from the outside, from your behaviour and responding to them, not from the inside – as you do! Don’t feel judged or guilty, it is simply about identifying what it is that you are finding difficult.
4. Next, address the immediate issue about your mental health. If it is having a detrimental effect on your day-to-day life, speak to your GP. Take someone with you if you feel able to. Having a second ‘voice’ can often be helpful to identify issues that you might forget about, or that you haven’t identified. Your GP needs as much information as possible to help you properly. If you are not impacted on a day-to-day basis, once your mental health is on a stable footing, ask yourself whether you feel able to tackle this without professional help, or whether you should undertake some counselling? Or whether you are willing to work with close others and importantly are your close others able to, although they may desperately want to, support you properly? If no to the latter, seek out a counsellor or seek advice online or over the phone from one of the many mental health charities that exist. Mind, NHS mental health and wellbeing support and Young Minds can help in signposting you to appropriate support networks.
5. Recognise that working through the effects of your psychological and emotional trauma is not a quick process. It takes no time at all to knock someone down. For chronic attacks this is exaggerated, but it takes a long time for them to have the confidence to stand up again. Be invested in building up your resilience and confidence.
6. Surround yourself with people who mean something to you. Do not isolate yourself – we are social creatures and need to be with others. If you live alone, join a group and get involved in community activities. If you are religious get involved in your faiths’ community projects. I am sure that your volunteering will be most gratefully received, and I believe even permitted under tier three restrictions – but do check! There are ways that you can be active and be sociable that do not involve going to the pub! Which, by the way, is totally out for anyone in tier three anyway!
7. Live your life free from the chains of those who brought you down.
Finally, always remember that you are you and only you can be you. It is not for others to tell you who you are, and anyone who wants to do so is simply not worth your concern. Be stronger than them and remove yourself from the equation. Take you back from them and always have the lyrics from Little Mix to hand.
“Who got the power?
I got the, I got the power
I got the, I got the power
I got the, I got the power