Bullying and discrimination on social media can affect our mental health, particularly in the case of young people and adolescents. Learning how to combat these and protect themselves are the first steps that our adolescents and young adults must take.
TEXT: ÁNGEL MARTOS
Stranger Things is the hottest series at the moment with the premiere of its fourth and final season. It has accumulated hundreds of millions of views on Netflix and is dominating global conversations on social media. The story of a group of young people and teenagers in the 1980s, the last decade before the internet and cell phones, is, however, a dark metaphor for our contemporary relationship with technology. Its characters, analog girls and boys who roam around on their bikes, live in a carefree way, unconcerned by likes but pierced by a fear that comes from another dimension: The Upside Down, a terrible world that seeks to devour their souls. In Stranger Things, the devotion to Wikipedic nostalgia, with references to cinema, television and music of that time (from The Goonies and Nightmare on Elm Street to the Twilight Zone and Cindy Lauper), hides a distressing definition of the current situation of those people whose mental health is being threatened by The Upside Down we know as the internet.
The coronavirus pandemic has put mental health on the agenda as never before in Spain. Especially when, forced upon us by lockdown, reality became increasingly virtual for everyone. That window to the world represented by the internet and social media, which opens up the possibility of remote work and relationships beyond our metaphysical location on Google Maps, also lets other evil horsemen through, in the form of hatred, discrimination and various types of bullying. The prefix “cyber” does not make them any less tangible; on the contrary, for those who suffer these through that extension of oneself that is the cell phone, they become painfully omnipresent.
This reality is particularly distressing for young people and adolescents, in that transitional stage when they are beginning to make independent decisions and yet have not ceased to be deeply vulnerable. According to a study published in the medical journal The Lancet, the onset of mental disorders occurs before the age of 14 in 50% of cases, and before the age of 24 in 75%.
To talk about these issues, there is no-one better than those who have actually suffered from them. One of these young women is Jen Herranz, a communicator and multimedia creator specializing in video games and technology. With almost 53 thousand followers on her Twitter account, @jenherranz, and just 30 years old herself, she recounts her adolescence spent as a victim of bullying, depression and suicide attempts. With her knowledge of the causes, both virtual and digital, she makes a clear and direct recommendation for taking care of mental health and avoiding hate on social media: “Get your cell phone and put it in a drawer.” In her experience, “All harassment is horrible and will haunt you, but social media bullying is on your cell phone and you take it with you to the bathroom, you look at it before going to sleep, when you’re watching a series on the couch… It somehow feels much more up close and personal.” To fight it, she recommends setting up all kinds of filters, limiting both notifications and outsider access to our profiles. She also encourages girls and boys “to have a life outside the internet and do things that really contribute to their lives and give them a support network”, especially in a country where receiving quality psychological care “is a privilege”.
The platforms themselves also have a lot to say. Twitter is one of the benchmark social media platforms, including when it comes to harassment and hate. Camino Rojo, Twitter’s Director of Public Policy and Philanthropy, says that “Abusive behavior discourages people from expressing themselves, thereby diminishing the value of the global public conversation… Our rules exist to ensure that everyone can participate freely and safely.” Standards that are increasingly effective in raising barriers against everything that can harm us as users. “It is undeniable that technology is progress, but we also have to know how to use it properly”, argues Rojo, “and platforms like ours must develop the use of products, policies, and technologies to complement all that educational effort.”
Preventing and reporting is the recipe adopted by the Central Unit for Citizen Participation of the National Police. The prevention actions they carry out are aimed not only at informing and educating so that someone can avoid becoming a victim of hate: “We also do it to prevent people from becoming aggressors”, emphasizes Ana Riveiro Calviño, representative of this body, who also states that hate crimes are those motivated by prejudice and committed against one or more people for possessing or presenting characteristics, whether real or perceived, that determine membership of a social group. Racism, xenophobia, aporophobia, homophobia, ageism, discrimination based on ideology, religion, illness, disability, gender or belonging to a gypsy ethnic group, anti-Semitism… There are many excuses for hatred on social media and increasingly more tools to combat this, including the Criminal Code. And if a young person or adolescent does experience possible bullying, the police recommend taking four steps: tell, if possible, a trusted adult; block the account where the attack is coming from; if you belong to a group targeted by hate crimes, collect evidence (such as screenshots) of the social media profiles where it occurs; and, finally, report it, because “If we do not know what is happening, we can do nothing to prevent it.”
The world of psychology is also sounding the alarm. “The degree to which absolutely degrading behavior against the dignity of people using technology is appearing is frightening”, states José Antonio Luengo, Dean-President of the Official College of Psychology in Madrid. In response to this diagnosis, he advocates combined action in which educational centers, but not only these, can play an important role in preventing and supporting victims. Because in his opinion, it is not enough to put up barriers to technology: “Even if you block it, you know that it is happening, that every day you are on the precipice, and you have to cross that desert, a journey where you find yourself alone in life, with parents who love you and who would like to help you, but who don’t really know what is happening to you”, he explains. A situation of imbalance driven by harassment, abuse or humiliation on social media that makes us feel bad for longer and longer periods of time and more and more intensely. This is when mental disorders appear in adolescents, which Luengo divides into three: generalized anxiety, mood disorders, and persistent depressive disorders. “The one that worries us most is post-traumatic stress, which is most associated with situations related in general with the trauma, the impact, the tremendous shock when your dignity as a person is undermined”, indicates the psychologist. ” I am not sure there are any grounds for optimism.”
Stranger Things are happening all over social media. But none of them are the result of fantastical monsters, esoteric powers or scientists bending the laws of nature. Everything is the result of people and the types of relationships they choose to establish in digital environments. Learning to take care of themselves and protect themselves is one of the first things that our teenagers and young people must do. And they must be aware that hate and discrimination have consequences, sometimes of a criminal nature.
For Alicia Rodríguez, from Fundación MAPFRE’s Health Promotion Area, when we talk about abusive behavior or hate speech on social media, we need to differentiate three distinct levels:
- That which is illegal and subject to the law (illegal hate speech).
- Speech that is not illegal but which is subject to internal content moderation policies aimed at preserving the health of the public conversation and preventing and avoiding harm in the offline world (the application of which does not always have a punitive element).
- Speech that is potentially offensive but which belongs to the realm of freedom of expression that is essential to respect.
It is necessary to teach responsible digital citizenship so that people know how to interact (and how not to interact) with others in the online environment, how to use the available tools to avoid seeing unwanted content, and to make the online experience as enriching and healthy as possible.
II Digital Health Summit: Mental health in the face of hate on social media
How do new technologies influence your mental health? What tools do digital natives need to manage their virtual lives? What should the role of parents, the school and the rest of society be? To discuss all these issues, Fundación MAPFRE and Pantallas Amigas organized a conference to analyze how messages laden with hostility and resentment that are transmitted via the internet can affect people’s wellbeing and what we can do to promote healthy conversation on social media networks and platforms.
The event was attended by Camino Rojo, Twitter Spain’s Director of Public Policy and Philanthropy, Ana Riveiro Calviño, from the Central Unit of Citizen Participation of the National Police, and the Dean-President of the Official College of Psychology of Madrid, José Antonio Luengo. The meeting was also attended by the communicator and multimedia creator specialized in video games and technology, Jen Herranz, who shared her experience as a victim of bullying. “It is imperative that we make use of the available tips and tools to improve our behavior on the internet and be aware and responsible, because what we post on social media reaches real people who are on the other side of the screen”, she stressed.