Perhaps it is appropriate for a psychology-based blog to comment on the pervasive practice of internet bullying. I do so for professional reasons and also because it has been a consistent experience I've had while blogging for Psychology Today the last few years. The type of internet bullying I have in mind is not the cyberbullying of kids texting each other; I mean the bullying that happens with nasty and usually profane comments on blogs, aimed at bloggers.
Blogs are now part of our cultural discourse, like book and article writing. Since comments are part of the blog experience, we all need to find some way to engage in this kind of communication while getting rid of those bullies who would try to ruin the experience for everyone. Surprisingly, there is little written on the internet about blog bullies (sometimes affectionately called "trolls").
Bullying is bullying; it's the same whether it's done by so-called adults on the internet, or by children on the playground. The primary cause is simple: an unhappy person takes out his or her unhappiness on others. The response is simple: limit-setting, in psychological jargon, or simply stopping the bully, in plain English. It is not, as many advise regarding blog bullying, to ignore the behavior. Bullies don't stop by being ignored. They stop by being stopped. In schools, the administrators need to stop them; if they won't, parents should do so; if they won't, in the worst cases, children themselves need to isolate and face down the bully. In the case of blog bullies, who are usually anonymous, the main way to stop them is to delete them.
Limit-setting is a basic psychological concept, something learned early by the new psychiatrist or psychologist in training. When dealing with people who are upset, which is often the case in treating mental illness, one has to constantly be wiling to set limits, to say no, to make it clear what one is and is not willing to do. This practice does not differ, I believe, from good parenting. All good parents set appropriate limits on their children. All good therapists set the right limits for their patients or clients. There is a difference, of course: adult patients are free citizens, always free to fire their doctors and go elsewhere. Children generally don't have that recourse. Nonetheless, when faced with adult patients, I set my limits and I always remind them that it is up to them whether they want to accept those limits or not. If not, they are able to seek treatment elsewhere. Limit-setting doesn't mean being mean; it means being firm in doing what one believes is in the best interest of the patient, even if the patient may not agree.
Now we come to blog bullies. One fellow responds to many of my postings with vulgar language. He will no doubt do the same to this posting, anonymously of course, because then he will not be open to public limit-setting. Perhaps I'm wrong; I'd be happy to see a name attached to the inevitable profanity, but I doubt I'll see it. Deletion is my response: an anonymous nobody returned to nothingness.
The internet lends itself to bullying exactly because of the cloak of anonymity; one can attack and avoid counterattack. It is just the same process as road rage; perfectly reasonable human beings flip the bird and yell at a stranger, exactly because the stranger is a stranger, and because they aren't recognized. But one won't dare raise one's voice with one's boss.
These blog bullies and road ragers are often the same people who were the schoolyard bullies, I believe. We teach our kids to stand their ground and inform responsible adults. Internet bloggers need to do the same. The ideal scenario is for a website to monitor its postings and delete the many profane bullying comments that occur. Major newspapers do so. Other websites don't do so, leaving it to their bloggers to police their sites. Either way, the immediate, direct, and consistent response needs to be to delete the bullying comments and simply end their virtual existence online. Response doesn't tend to work well, partly because the cowardice of anonymity provides defense. The schoolyard bully may need to be fought, but one knows who he is. The anonymous blog bully can only be deleted, again and again.
It is clear that such people have much time to waste, and much hatred to spew. In the case of limit-setting with patients, one has the advantage that most patients want to get better, and they will work with the doctor to that end. In the case of schoolyard and blog bullies, unfortunately, one's counterpart does not want help, so the limit-setting is not for the benefit of the bully, but for the benefit of everyone else.
The vast majority of readers of blogs, just like most schoolchildren, are neither bullies or willing to be bullied. They want to talk and interact like normal human beings. They may not agree, they may not want to be friends, but at least they are willing to put their names behind their ideas, or they are willing to discuss their ideas civilly. For their sake, internet bloggers need to say what they want to say, and, with the delete button, nonviolently resist the Bull Connors of the internet.