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What is online shaming and what can you do to protect your child from it?
Online shaming is when somebody is targeted and attacked by other online users, usually on social media platforms. This could be because of something they’ve said, or perhaps an image they’ve posted. Online shaming is a form of online bullying which takes place on a large scale, often by a crowd of other online users, rather than someone you know.
The attackers vilify, insult, and pour scorn on the person. There have been several well known cases of online shaming in the last few years, where people worldwide have joined in to shame the victim.
A large group of young people can gang up on someone online, targeting them for something they’ve said, or done, that they happen to disagree with. Online shaming can be easy to get caught up in, and can have serious consequences offline.
Why do people do it?
Being part of a large group, alongside the relative anonymity of the online world, can help foster a mob mentality which means people may things they would never dream of saying to someone's face in real life. The internet also provides a level of distance: when you can’t see the person you’re attacking, or the effect your words are having on them, it’s easier to lose your sense of compassion.
What are the consequences?
When one woman wrote a tweet that mocked how living in America puts people in a bubble when it comes to what’s going on in the Third World, the (admittedly misjudged and not very funny) joke was taken the wrong way. The woman sent the tweet just before boarding a flight to Africa. With no online access during the 11-hour flight, she was completely unaware that her comment had been retweeted tens of thousands of times, without the chance to defend herself or take it down, with people condemning her as racist (among other insults) on Twitter.
News spread of when her plane was landing, and people living in the area even went to the airport to post photos of her arrival.
She walked off the plane into a media storm that had spread beyond the confines of Twitter. Eleven days after the tweet, she had been Googled 1,220,000 times and fired from her job. She described the experience as ‘incredibly traumatic’, still cannot interact on social media, and felt that she couldn’t date people any more.1
There have been other cases of online shaming. In 2017, the Twittershphere rounded on YouTuber Zoella when old tweets that were perceived to be fat shaming and homophobic were uncovered. She deleted the tweets and apologised.
At best, shaming can seriously undermine a person’s self-esteem. At worst, someone can lose their job, jeopardise their reputation and suffer serious mental health problems such as depression.2
For a young person, who may be less resilient than an adult, this could have a profound effect on their mental health and on their social lives. For children, the shaming doesn’t have to go global – it’s enough that they have been targeted by their fellow pupils at school for it to have a negative effect on them.
Tips for parents
- Talk to your child about online shaming on social media. If they have already heard about it, ask them what they know about it and what their opinion of it is.
- Remind them to avoid posting something that could be taken the wrong way – if a joke they’re about to make could be misunderstood, it’s probably best not to post it publicly.
- Emphasise to them that any mean comment they make on social media about something someone else has posted is going to affect the person on the receiving end.
- Remind them that they should only ever say something online that they’d be happy to say offline, and face-to-face. Being online can sometimes make us think we have the freedom to say what we like, with the internet acting as a sort of mask. Emphasise to them that what they do or say online can have real-life consequences, too. For example, they could be called into the school for disciplinary action.
- Things that are said or done online can often be taken out of context. Talk to your children about being digitally savvy, and to check the facts before they jump in with their opinion.
- Highlight to them how easy it is to get caught up in a group. It feels good to be a part of something, but, it’s often helpful to take a step back and think logically about what they’re about to do or say first. The old mantra, ‘if they told you to jump off a cliff, would you?’ rings true online just as much as it does offline.
- Talk to your child about their digital footprint and remind them that any unkind comment they post online is always going to be out there. Once they’ve posted it, it’s out of their control.
The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: November 2015
Updated: May 2018
1 Jon Ronson, ‘So you’ve been publicly shamed’ Kindle version