A look at the prevalence and mental health repercussions of online body shaming and trolling
The internet and technology is a double edged sword. While on one hand, teenagers and young adults have access to knowledge, the possibilities and network offered by the internet, on the other hand, it can be addictive and often consumes a large part of the user's time and bandwidth. But the most worrying aspect of the web that few of us consider, is online abuse. According to a study conducted by Microsoft, India ranks third in the prevalence of cyberbullying, followed by China and Singapore; and yet, there are no specific numbers on the prevalence of abuse. Despite the magnitude of the issue, there is a lack of awareness about cyber security and reluctance among many parents and teachers to educate children about it.
In a survey done on internet usage among children in 35 cities in India, it was found that 28 million internet users (of the 400 million surveyed) are school children (aged 14 years and above). This makes education about internet safety an important task.
The abuse and exploitation of children online may occur in three categories:
Cyberbullying – through emotional harrassment, defamation, intimidation and social exclusion
Online sexual abuse – through sexual harassment, asking for sexual favors, financial / blackmail extortion
Online sexual exploitation – through commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking
Of the three, cyberbullying is most common and can, but not always, be conducted by friends and persons known to the victim. Much like bullying, cyberbullying may include comments on the young person's looks, emotional harassment, defamation and finally social exclusion.
For a lot of teens, peer acceptance is an important part of their academic life and don't recognise the emotional effects that online body shaming has on them.
Dr Ashlesha Bagadia, consultant psychiatrist at Fortis La Femme, Bangalore
What does body shaming do to a person?
Anupama Manne, a 22 year old actor and part of content creation team that produces the web series Girl Formula, has an active online presence. She describes some of the comments she recieves from her audience as 'distressing' and 'scary'. “I am constantly body-shamed for my appearance in videos. There are people who say mean things about my looks, my voice and my body. There are a lot of people who send direct messages on social media saying things like 'You are ruining the company's name' or 'When you appear on videos, you fit the whole screen'. I have started wearing long kurtis on the videos because I feel so conscious of what I wear,” she says.
"Adolescents and young adults are just forging their identity when in school and college, and a public humiliation, which is what online body shaming is, become very difficult to shake off. Your self-worth and validation come from this space. So when you're trolled there, the shame is multiplied. The message that they are receiving is that 'you are not okay'," says Ajanta De, counselor at the Bangalore based Innersight Counselling and Training Services.
What does body shaming do to the youngster? “It's extreme, depending on the kind of abuse the teen is facing and how they are able to deal with the situation. The behavioral effect can range from anger, resentment, fear, going into a shell, violent behavior at home as a form of venting the frustration, social isolation and, in many cases, depression,” says Sonali Patankar, founder of Responsible Netism, a Mumbai-based trust that works on online child safety.
The shame that manifests from online trolling is personal, and it's difficult for adolescents to navigate this or understand that this behaviour is in reality, the bully's shame.
"The effect of online bullying is also more long-standing than offline bullying," says Dr Bagadia, pointing at the permenance of online comments as opposed to offline shaming where the interaction ends when the persons invloved are not in contact. Online bullying also allows for anonymity and, therefore, enhances the nastiness of comments.
This can have a deep impact on the mental health of a person says De adding, "any kind of body shaming, online or offline affects the self-worth of the person. It can have big ramifications in the form of emotional eating, anxiety and in some cases eating disorders as well. But for most people, they are left with a general sense of inadequacy and a need for validation."
How can parents help?
Once the adolescent has faced any online bullying or abuse, parents tend to blame the teen and ask them to stop using mobile phones and the internet, but experts suggest that it will not help solve the problem. “Once the adolescent has approached you as a parent, take time to listen to them, because many do not want to speak to their parents about it. Keep the communication open, ask if you could help them in anyway. Assure them that you will be there for them and will help them find solutions if they feel it is a really bad situation,” says Dr Bagadia.
Experts suggest that parents and schools can work toward online safety by:
Restricting the duration of internet usage & encouraging teens to take up sports or other physical activity
Discuss cyber-related issues through conversations with children
Encourage cyber education at home – talk about the pros and cons of the internet and technology
Help maintain an open communication and create a safe space at home for children to share information about their online lives
Coordinate with school authorities to take up awareness programs
Talking about inclusiveness, different body types and most importantly the concept of interpersonal empathy
This content has been created with the help of Dr Manoj Sharma, clinical psychologist at NIMHANS, Dr Ashlesha Bagadia, psychiatrist at Fortis La Femme, Bangalore, Sonali Patkar, founder of Responsible Netism, Mumbai and Ajanta De, counselor at Innersight Counselling Services.