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  1. Spotlight
24 May 2021

When your abusers are everywhere

Online trauma is affecting more people, but little seems to be happening to tackle effects or causes.

By Samir Jeraj

It should have been a moment of professional joy for Somriddho Dasgupta. The model and actor had appeared in a 2020 video that went viral, clocking over a million views. But the abuse began almost at once, with the sheer volume of hostile comments and messages aimed at Dasgupta making it impossible to ignore. The vitriol quickly escalated to death threats – most of the bullies seemingly incensed by Dasgupta, who identifies as androgynous, looking too “feminine” in the video.

Dasgupta started to avoid YouTube and the torrent of hateful comments underneath his work, but the perpetrators quickly followed him to Instagram, where it started all over again until he turned off the comments altogether. Dasgupta tells Spotlight he was traumatised by the events, feeling depressed for months while stopping all work on videos. He felt he was being coerced into presenting in a more “masculine manner” and felt unhappy and “claustrophobic” because he could not express himself as he wanted.

Cybertrauma covers a range of emotional and psychological responses to online experiences: from bullying and threatening messages, through to falling victim to online fraud, to cyberstalking and grooming. This isn’t something limited to influencers like Dasgupta. A third of all homeworkers experienced online abuse in the past year, according to research from the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, an organisation that aims to reduce the risk of violence and aggression through campaigning, education and support.

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Catherine Knibbs is a therapist with a background in computing and has researched and written on cybertrauma. These types of traumas, she says, are different because unlike a traumatic event in physical reality that happens only once, with cybertrauma “you can go back and you can re-read the text, you can revisit the image, you can listen to the sounds again. It can also be downloaded by somebody and then uploaded [somewhere else].”

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Nor can the technology “just be turned off” as some professionals suggest. Knibbs says perpetrators will often have enough information and skill to know when their victims come back online or switch to other platforms. She feels neither services nor many therapists are equipped to deal with the intersection of technology and trauma, let alone working with perpetrators to address their behaviour.

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Dasgupta stresses how central online existence has become to everyday lives – the notion  that it’s somehow less important because it’s mere lights on a screen doesn’t really hold up. “Sure, it’s online, but it is about my reality, the stuff that is super important to me and super personal to me,” Dasgupta says. At the same time, support networks outside the web can be crucial. Dasgupta had a sister and a close friend living with him; he credits them with helping him persevere. “I’m not sure I would have been able to go through that [without them],” he says.

For Knibbs, there are larger questions at work. She would like to see more work being done by therapists to talk people through their behaviours online and offline, as well as broader education from childhood about “compassionate and empathic relationships”, to make people consider the effect their online behaviour has on equally real human beings. She also thinks there is a role for legislation governing the acceptable use of technology, but feels it is wrong to simply blame the social media companies when a wider, societal issue is being played out through technology. “We need to be working on critical thinking skills, relationships, and then, of course, we look into technology and educating the general public,” she concludes.

This article originally appeared in the Spotlight report on cyber security. You can download the full edition here.