Suppose that you go every day to collect your children from school. One day, another parent tells you that she’s heard people gossiping about you, for example, saying what a bad mother you are. You won’t really want to go to the school gates, will you? Unless you go into ‘fight’ mode and have it out with everyone, or are especially thick-skinned, you’ll probably engage in avoidance behaviour. You’ll get someone else to collect the children, you’ll arrive a bit late so that everyone else has gone, you’ll tell them to meet you at the end of the lane instead. I know. Because exactly that happened to me, once.
Now suppose you are harassed online. You are likely also to engage in avoidance behaviour. But at least your children eventually get to go home from school on their own anyway. And at least, you can get the children safely home and shut the door, and not have to listen to the gossips. But if you are pushed into avoidance behaviour online, what might that mean?
It might mean this. It might mean that every morning, when you sit down to work at your computer, you feel sick. Because the computer, that computer sitting there, on your desk, in your room, is the site of the harassment. In fact, any computer is the site of harassment. Any computer at all.
It might mean that whenever you turn on your search engine, you feel a bit sick too, because that’s the place of harassment. It might mean that when you are forced to check your emails, you can’t bear to look at the screen. Perhaps you’ll do this: open your email with your eyes closed, then take a piece of paper, hold it over the screen, and move it down slowly, with the other hand over your eyes, squinting, because you really still can’t bear to look to see who’s sent you emails that day, because of the fear that a harassing email might have arrived. Supposing you have been subject to harassment, gossip or ridicule on a professional blog site. You might avoid these entirely, or do the same sort of trick of having a quick look with your eyes askance and your hand over the screen, or ask a friend to check for you to see if there’s any more comments up about you, and whether these are hostile or not. It might mean that you decide not to check your emails for days on end, that you decide to work in a café or away from your desk. That then might mean that you become isolated from what you really ought to be doing.
Online slurring of reputation and ridicule is viewed by many as trivial – ‘ignore it’ – ‘who cares what they think’ – ‘it’s just banter’ – ‘it’s not so bad’. But the tentacles of online harassment are very long indeed. It needs to be taken very seriously.