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When you are the victim of aggressive online behavior in your profession

July 30, 2020
Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH, takes an in-depth look at cyberbullying, online aggression in the professional world, and how to process anger and online ranting in a positive way.

Bullies and victims. These two personas have been around as long as humans have existed. Usually, we think of them in the classroom or on the playground, but as the internet has evolved, bullying has become more complex. Online bullying, or cyberbullying, wreaks havoc on its victims, and it is much harder to escape when it happens in online forums attached to personal or professional social media accounts.1

The veil of anonymity the online world provides seems to encourage bullying as it takes less effort to type some vicious words than to torment someone in person. People are easier to access when they have public personas in the digital world; celebrities, journalists, and other high-profile figures often find themselves victims of this vitriol.2 But is it really anonymous bullying? In professional forums with thousands of members who can screenshot all conversations, see the poster’s name, and immediately look up licensing information and report the behavior to employers, the consequences can be great. The aggressive and often unprofessional behavior in social media forums is seen by many and may stain the reputation of the poster.

On the flip side, it can be easy for someone to misunderstand the intent behind some words and feel victimized, making it sometimes unclear if bullying has actually occurred. If someone is overly sensitive, it can lead to false accusations that flip the dynamic, and the perceived bully becomes the victim. It’s a total minefield!

It is not easy dealing with these issues in the professional realm, and we all know how harmful it can be, but there are ways to transform anger into positivity through self-work and being proactive. Let us take a look at the evolution of cyberbullying and how to survive an attack.

The nature of the beast: aggression

We know bullies are a part of humanity, but psychologically, what underlies their behavior? Through a combination of manipulation, self-grandiosity, and callousness, destructive social personalities are born.

Cyberbullying carries powerful currents of aggression, and although historically aggression has sometimes been rewarded (such as on the playing field or the battlefield), when it comes to our personal and professional lives, it needs to be discouraged. On a positive note, employers are beginning to filter out people who exhibit latent aggression and its companions: lying, bullying, harassment, fighting, and stalking, in order to protect healthy work atmospheres.3

Cyberbullying in 2020

As our world digitizes further, it has become easier than ever to send a cruel email, text, or social media message. To insult or criticize someone’s work, approach to patient care, or even language used in forums has become common practice. I have been guilty of this behavior myself and have had to take a step back and remember that there is a human being on the other side of that comment. Fifty-three percent of online users report experiences of harassment, and 56% specify their harassment happened on Facebook.4 However, it is a lot more complex than someone just being cruel online.

Without face-to-face communication, online users operate with less empathy; the virtual world makes human pain and emotion seem somewhat less real. Online bystanders are also less concerned when they witness bullying as the consequences are less visible.5

In Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, the author explains how reputations, lives, and psyches can be permanently damaged. It is not just the “shamee” who is harmed, but the “shamer” also experiences enhanced negativity, as he says the phenomenon “destroys souls, brutalizing everyone, the onlookers included.”6

By its nature, social media encourages narcissistic traits and can hold a somewhat distorted mirror up to our lives, continually comparing us with others. If someone already has low self-esteem, seeing their peers post often exaggerated, glorious accounts of their lives is soul destroying and demoralizing. Someone who is hurting may feel this is an attack on them and react either by using bullying actions or feeling like a victim. Hurt people hurt people.

Cyberbullies are known to work in unison or to become a virtual mob on social forums, and it is not only a personal attack but also a form of public shaming, particularly if it is on social media or a blog.

The myth that “venting” is a healthy behavior: What Freud got wrong

It is common to tell an agitated person they need to go “blow off some steam.” The idea of catharsis through venting came from the theories of Sigmund Freud.7 Freud believed that repressed negative emotions, like anger, could build up and amplify if they were not released; comparing our emotional interior to a hydraulic system, the patient needed to release anger or risk exploding.8

Since Freud’s days, there have been many studies carried out that refute this, leading psychologists to develop another model of understanding—neoassociation theory—which theorizes that the more you ruminate on your anger, the more you activate it.9 Research in psychology has shown no support for venting as a way to lessen anger but instead suggests that rumination and venting increase anger, causing the emotion to cycle and preserving the rage.10 With online hostility, the results were the same; those who read or wrote online rants were angrier or less happy after they acted.11

In the moment, it does feel good to tell someone what is bothering you. It feels good to have them validate your frustrations. We do, however, need to look at this with some self-awareness. Are we venting to be validated, or venting to work through the issue?

How to integrate anger in a positive way

This may sound a little “woo-woo,” but stay with me as I have tried these techniques—with lots of hesitation and pushback in the moment—and I have found they really do work.

If venting increases anger, how can we beneficially integrate this emotion? Many methods can dispel anger and lessen its adverse effects. One such way is through mindfulness meditation, in which you note your anger and let it pass as you focus on your breath.12 A simpler method is taking deep breaths and counting to 10 when you feel triggered, before reacting. These methods take you out of a reactionary state into a witness state, where you can see your emotion and detach from it.

Another method is taking a long walk in nature while engaging in deep breathing. Speaking with a neutral third party or therapist is another potent option if you can’t seem to shake the rage. The key to dispelling anger is taking the time to judge the situation; then, using the questions “why” and “who,” get a handle on your need to react.13 The reality is that we have to do the inner work. Fortunately, we have highly adaptable brains that can learn new behavior and change our habits.14

A technique that has worked for me is to imagine someone feeling that same anger toward a person I love and care for. How would my friend or family feel if the words of anger I was feeling or saying struck them and caused the emotional pain I was trying to inflict on the person toward whom I felt anger? Then I take a moment to dive into what really is making me angry and how some of that anger is because of the story I am telling myself and not reality.

How to survive online bullying: What to do when you’re being cyberbullied professionally

Cyberbullying and online shaming can happen to anyone. While it is not preventable, there are ways to survive this toxic behavior and to help others. If you do become a target, remain calm and do not inflame the bully with explosive messages; silence is more effective in deactivating their anger and makes you a less compelling target. Do not delete anything and keep a record of abusive interactions in case it escalates. If the attacker does not stop, it is best to unlink yourself from them, report it to the social network, and block their account.

For your mental health, remind yourself daily that the bullies’ comments are not reflective of you, and talk to your friends about the situation so that you have support.15 If you witness cyberbullying, post positive support messages for the target of the attacks.16 Everyone we interact with digitally is a living human with complex emotions—someone whose backstory we do not know. We should build a positive future together in our profession and seek other ways to support one another as we move through 2020.

References

1. Konnikova M. How the internet has changed bullying. The New Yorker. October 21, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/how-the-internet-has-changed-bullying.

2. 7 stars who have personal experiences of online bullying. BBC. Accessed February 10, 2020.https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/3QcD9W13Dr0bxmt4CMWVkGk/7-stars-who-have-personal-experiences-of-online-bullying. Accessed Feb. 11, 2020.

3. Hartley D. 7 toxic behaviors of highly aggressive people at work. Psychology Today. August 12, 2016. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/machiavellians-gulling-the-rubes/201608/7-toxic-behaviors-highly-aggressive-people-work.

4. Skrba A. Cyberbullying statistics, facts, and trends (2020). Firstsiteguide.com. October 28, 2019. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://firstsiteguide.com/cyberbullying-stats/.

5. UCLA psychology study explains when and why bystanders intervene in cyberbullying. UCLA Newsroom. January 14, 2016. Accessed February 11, 2020. http://newsroom.ucla.edu/releases/ucla-psychology-study-explains-when-and-why-bystanders-intervene-in-cyberbullying.

6. So you’ve been publicly shamed quotes. Goodreads.com. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://www.goodreads.com/work/quotes/43062778-so-you-ve-been-publicly-shamed.

7. Olsen P. Catharsis in psychology: theory, examples & definition. Study.com. May 27, 2015. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://study.com/academy/lesson/catharsis-in-psychology-theory-examples-definition.html.

8. Four questions on the catharsis myth with Dr. Brad Bushman. Alltheragescience.com. October 26, 2011. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://alltheragescience.com/commentary/four-questions-on-the-catharsis-myth-with-dr-brad-bushman/.

9. Berkowitz L. A different view of anger: the cognitive-neoassociation conception of the relation of anger to aggression. Aggress Behav. 2012;38(4):322-333. doi:10.1002/ab.21432

10. Is it better to vent your anger or keep it inside? Curiosity. April 4, 2017. Accessed February 10, 2020. https://curiosity.com/topics/is-it-better-to-vent-your-anger-or-keep-it-inside-curiosity/.

11. Martin RC, Coyier KR, VanSistine LM, Schroeder KL. Anger on the internet: the perceived value of rant-sites. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2013;16(2):119-122. doi:10.1089/cyber.2012.0130

12. Roberts C. 5 healthier ways to deal with anger instead of venting. Cnet.com. November 16, 2019. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://www.cnet.com/news/5-healthier-ways-to-deal-with-anger-instead-of-venting/.

13. Waters B. Anger management: the five W’s of healthy venting. Psychology Today. August 10, 2011. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://www.psychologytoday.com/intl/blog/design-your-path/201108/anger-management-the-five-ws-healthy-venting.

14. Hampton D. The neuroscience of changing your behavior. The best brain possible with Debbie Hampton. January 8, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://thebestbrainpossible.com/the-neuroscience-of-changing-your-behavior/.

15. Fratti K. 6 things to do if you’re being bullied online (which definitely happens to adults too). Hellogiggles.com. June 30, 2017. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://hellogiggles.com/lifestyle/technology/things-to-do-if-youre-being-bullied-online/.

16. Bernstein E. Lessons for stopping an adult cyberbully. The Wall Street Journal. May 16, 2016. Accessed February 11, 2020. https://www.wsj.com/articles/lessons-for-stopping-a-cyberbully-1463430999.

Michelle Strange, MSDH, RDH, brings 20 years of experience to her roles in dentistry. She is the cofounder and cohost of A Tale of Two Hygienists podcast, TriviaDent, Level Up Infection Prevention, and owner of MichelleStrangeRDH. A graduate of the Medical University of South Carolina with a Bachelor's of Health Science and the University of Bridgeport with a Master's in Dental Hygiene Education, Strange focuses on expanding the knowledge of her colleagues in health care. Her passion for dentistry and its connection to overall health extends to her community and global efforts, most notably in her work as a weekly dental hygienist volunteer and annual dental mission trip leader.