Facing Online Harassment: A Lesson in Learned Helplessness

It can be as subtle as being untagged in an Instagram photo or as explicit as being called a “slut” on Snapchat. Online harassment is ravaging young Americans.

Just look.

Online harassment is made up of a dozen problems and is caused by a number of factors.

Killing online harassment cannot be done with government regulation or other such means. Like a cancer, you might be able to kill online harassment one place only to see it pop up someplace else more fierce than ever before.

Perhaps the most chilling fact about online harassment is this: few of us seem to do anything about it.

Learned Helplessness and Online Harassment

In the 1960s, psychologist Martin Seligman conducted tests on sets of dogs in order to learn more about depression. Allow me to oversimplify his experiments for you.

Seligman paired dogs together in harnesses and shocked them. For some of the dogs, the shock was able to be stopped by pushing a lever. For other dogs in the same situation, pushing the lever did nothing.

At a later experiment with the same dogs, a shock was able to be escaped by moving from one part of their enclosure to another. The dogs who were able to stop the previous shock with their levers learned how to avoid the shock and moved to the other part of the enclosure.

The dogs whose lever did nothing to prevent the previous shock made no attempt to escape the shock like the other dogs did. All they had to do was move to the other side of the enclosure. But they didn’t.

They simply took the shock. They thought they were helpless because of their previous experience.

This is called “learned helplessness.”

When it comes to dealing with online harassment, I believe most of us have this sort of “learned helplessness.”

In our early days on social media, perhaps we were a bit more voracious in our attempts to stop trolls and quell harassment—I know I was. But every time we would try, we were unable to eliminate the trolls from our experience entirely.

You can’t really ban trolls from the internet. It’s just not realistic.

So, as the following data shows, we sort of disengage and give up.

We have learned we are helpless.

Online Harassment Makes Us Anxious, Few of Us Care Enough to Act

According to data released last month by the Pew Research Center, most of us don’t really engage with harassment online if it’s not directed at us.

About 30% of American adults have responded to online harassment they have witnessed.

That means that, about 70% of us see someone being made fun of, sexually harassed, or otherwise on the internet and just go along our merry way.

I confess: I rarely say anything. Because I usually ignore any trolls that try to harass me, I am not usually prone to engage harassers on behalf of others.

Further, almost a tenth of Americans have experienced a high level of anxiety after witnessing online harassment. Of young Millennials, ages 18-29, 48% experience some level of anxiety when they see harassment take place online.

We do not feel at all nonchalant toward online harassment—it makes us anxious—but we rarely do anything about it.

The good news about our engagement with online harassment is that the more serious the harassment, the more likely we are to engage, as this chart shows.

So, while not many of us do anything to stop harassment, we do think it is a problem.

That’s a start, I guess.

Harassment: A Problem, But Not a HUGE Problem…?

This graph shows us that 77% of Americans believe privacy violation is a serious major problem, 73% believe seeing false or inaccurate information is a major problem (fake news), and just 62% of Americans believe people being harassed or bullied online is a major problem.

I agree that both privacy and fake information are major problems, but it is troubling to me that significantly fewer Americans think harassment is a major problem.

I think this shows that we still sort of see the online forum as a not-quite-real forum.

I could go on and on with all kinds of data from this study, but I think I need to leave some of it for future blog posts. I can’t have this post be two thousand words long.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to just ban hateful people from the internet?

Not so fast. That may not be the best course of action.

The Free Speech Conundrum

We need to examine the free speech element of this discussion that makes everything sort of sticky here.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post about how hate groups co-opted Pepe the Frog and effectively killed the artistic creation of someone by making it a hate symbol.

Should people who harass, bully, or otherwise troll other people be banned from the internet or be otherwise punished in some way?

Banning hateful people from the internet sounds like a good idea in theory, but it can become complicated quickly. Even if we had such an ability, should we do it?

Christians who promote biblical sexual ethics have been labeled as hate groups before. What happens when the companies that control the internet decide to pull the rug out from under them?

If we’re going to be in favor of banning “hate groups” and “harassers” from the internet, we must be wary of the ever-changing definitions of such terms.

1 Comment Facing Online Harassment: A Lesson in Learned Helplessness

  1. Matthew

    I wonder, in regards to the last graph/poll question, what the results are by age group.

    I’m betting those that would be classified as Millennial are more sensitive to the hatred and bullying online and see it as a bigger concern than the older generations. I don’t mean that in a “Millennials are snowflakes” sort of way, just that they’ve been raised to be more conscientious than older generations.

    I admit, as a Gen X’er, I’ve never found online bullying something I’m concerned about, but I certainly find myself concerned about privacy. Honestly, I’ve never thought of bullying as a problem at all when growing up, so long as it didn’t result in actual physical harm.

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