Illustration by Blane Asrat
“I could sort of feel myself hanging by a thread,” said R.J. Aguiar, a 33-year-old video producer and content creator from Los Angeles. He was describing the psychological symptoms he experienced after becoming the target of online harassment—a growing problem in the United States, with 4 in 10 Americans reporting that they’ve experienced it, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center report. “There’s all these negative emotions,” he said. “There's feelings of paranoia and feelings of rage against a threat that you can't see and you don't know. It feels like everybody's against you… it kind of turns everybody into a potential enemy.”
R.J. is best known for starring in one of the first same-sex daily YouTube vlogs, which chronicled the ups and downs of his life with his husband. Since that relationship ended 11 years ago, he has been tormented by anonymous needlers who favored his ex, making it impossible for him to eat, sleep, or work due to their attacks. “They will say and do whatever they can to try and get under your skin,” he said, describing vitriolic comments about his sexuality, fake social media accounts set up in his name, and coordinated attacks to entrap him or get him fired from his job. In one incident, a catfisher on an online dating app leaked his private videos and photos to his mother. Although there has been limited research on the health implications of online harassment, much like other forms of trauma, survivors of online harassment experience responses on a spectrum ranging from subtle to deeply destructive. Exposure to trauma has been linked with emotional dysregulation or mood swings, as well as agitation and insomnia—and when the harassment is online, these instances of abuse can be sustained over more extended periods, continuously retraumatizing people at all hours of the day, virtually anywhere. According to a 2021 review published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, victims of online harassment reported “detrimental consequences for their mental health, including depression, suicidal ideation, and panic attacks.”
For R.J., starting trauma therapy under the care of a counselor and a psychiatrist who recognized the consequences of online harm and PTSD was invaluable to his recovery, and it’s why he ultimately decided to stop working as an influencer full-time. But this isn’t only an issue for the soul-baring content creators among us. It’s becoming more likely that at some point in our lives, we might all end up having unpleasant interactions online, to say the least—and given the increased likelihood of needing the internet for work and connecting with family and friends, for most people simply logging off isn’t an option. So if online harassment is affecting your physical, emotional, and social wellbeing, what can you do about it?According to Jami Dumler, a licensed clinical social worker with Thriveworks in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, treatment is all about “learning how to calm and manage emotions and nervous system dysregulation effectively.” Similar to the interventions for acute anxiety, trauma, or post-traumatic stress disorder, treatment for online harassment can involve psychotherapy (such as EDMR, NARM, or CPT, whether done alone or with a group), antidepressants (particularly SSRIs and SNRIs), and antihistamines or beta-blockers when appropriate. For best results, Dumler said, it’s important to seek the care of a specialized therapist who can tailor treatment for specific and unique triggers whenever possible. For example, if someone has experienced cyber harassment in the form of doctored photos or leaked information, they might look for a therapist who has experience with trauma and sexual abuse.
“It feels like everybody's against you… it kind of turns everybody into a potential enemy.” —R.J. Aguiar
How do you know if you’re a good candidate for treatment? Warning signs to look out for include getting so distracted by what’s going on online that you’re unable to show up in your personal life, fulfill daily tasks at work, or focus at home, said Dumler. “Sometimes people get really overwhelmed with online harassment and kind of shut down and detach from everybody. So that would be another warning sign [that you’re] not feeling joy in the usual things,” she said. In addition, feelings of shame and physiological changes such as disturbed sleep and drastic changes in appetite for more than a few days are all cues that your body is likely under duress from stressors, and you should seek help, she said.
Both Dumler and Howard Pratt, a board-certified psychiatrist and Behavioral Health Medical Director at Community Health of South Florida, said they encourage their clients to limit the source of their abuse by disengaging with a particular platform. They recommended reporting harassment, whenever possible, and working on ways to feel empowered and take back control, like starting a new account, going private, or blocking users. In addition, Pratt recommended supportive therapies that help those who have suffered through trauma, such as yoga, acupuncture, and somatic therapy, which can release points of tension in the patient’s body, strengthening the mind-body connection. “A trauma is a trauma,” he said. “The source doesn’t matter.”
“Treatment is about learning how to calm and manage emotions and nervous system dysregulation effectively.” —Jami Dumler
According to data released by the Women’s Media Center on online abuse, online harassment primarily happened to women, with much of it veering towards sexual harassment. And despite the prevalence of anonymous attacks, many people who experience online harassment actually know their abuser—whether it’s an in-real-life acquaintance, a former partner of someone they’re dating, or an ex. “More of the stalking, spreading rumors, sexual harassment, that [behavior] typically does come from someone you know,” said Dumler. She’s also noticed an increase in her LGBTQ clients seeking treatment for harassment due to their gender expressions and sexuality, as well as clients going through a breakup or experiencing intimate partner violence in her practice. Maggie, a 32-year-old podcaster, is undergoing treatment for the trauma she suffered after her ex-partner and his girlfriend created an anonymous Instagram account that posted confidential legal documents from her custody battle and called her a horrible mother. She found out about it after someone sent her a screenshot of the posts and discovered that the account was friend-requesting all of her followers on social media and sending them messages claiming she was an unfit parent. “It really made me afraid,” Maggie said. “I was afraid to be online. Growing up with the internet, we could connect when we want to, [and] we [could] disconnect. Now, as an adult, and having all these extensions, my social media isn’t just my social media. It supports my business. I got super anxious and super depressed. I was always afraid something is going to happen.” Maggie’s fiancé, an attorney, advised her to document all of her online harassment by taking screenshots that she presented in court, which ultimately helped her win her custody battle against her ex. But she said she wouldn’t have been able to cope with her situation if not for the help of talk therapy with a trauma-informed therapist.Her therapist diagnosed her with generalized anxiety disorder after the incident and told her to take space and time before engaging with the internet in an emotionally reactive way every morning. “The only thing I would have done differently,” Maggie said, “is I wouldn’t have given [my ex] any, like, pleasure [because of] my reaction. That’s why they’re taking it to a public platform. Talking to my therapist and understanding why people do these things, and how it’s not really about you, really helped.”Follow Suzy Katz on Twitter.