Jesy Nelson – 28-year-old member of British girl group Little Mix – has spoken candidly about what it’s like to be on the receiving end of online abuse, and the effect that it had on her mental health. From the moment Little Mix won ITV talent show The X Factor in 2011, Nelson was subjected to a barrage of horrific messages about her weight and looks.
In a new documentary, Jesy Nelson: “Odd One Out”, the pop star opens up about her harrowing experiences.
She is not alone.
Anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label has found that 17% of 10,020 young people surveyed in 2017 had experienced some form of cyber-bullying, while a further 69% admitted doing something abusive online. Of those who had been bullied online, 26% developed suicidal thoughts as a direct consequence of their experience.
The harsh realities
Cyber-bullying and trolling can be relentless, with messages sent and received around the clock. For some, the answer is simple – if you don’t want to receive abuse, don’t go online. But these days, to withdraw from social media is to withdraw from social life. There is intense pressure – especially on young people – to have a presence on some form of social media. In fact, in the documentary Nelson claims she was told that she had to be on social media when she took part in The X Factor.
This form of abuse can alter the lives of victims dramatically, and change who they are as a person. It can cause people to withdraw from social life and change their online presence, for instance by closing down their social media accounts. It can also lead to significant mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm and in some cases suicide.
In Nelson’s case, it led her to attempt to take her own life in 2013. Sadly, this is one of the harsh realities of online abuse: a 2018 study found that young people under 25 years old, who were subjected to cyber-bullying, were 2.3 times more likely to self-harm or display suicidal tendencies. As in most cases of cyber-bulling, Nelson’s own experience had a lasting impact, not only on her, but also on her family and friends.
Unable to cope
Trolling and cyber-bullying is having significant effect on institutions across society. Police forces have been placed under mounting pressure following the rise in social media use.
Between 2015 and 2016, police reports involving malicious communications increased by 36,462 to 79,372, according to 38 of 42 police forces responding to a Freedom of Information request by the BBC. Yet police chiefs say this is only the tip of the iceberg, and that police forces are unable to cope with the “unimagined scale of online abuse” across the country.
Similar arguments have been raised in schools, where teachers have come under increasing pressure to tackle online abuse. According to research undertaken by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), 14% of headteachers in England stated that they receive complaints of “hurtful comments” online at least once a week from pupils.
There is no single solution to online abuse. Social media companies must do more to protect their users. Earlier in 2019, the UK government announced plans to impose a duty of care on the likes of Facebook and Twitter. But the biggest change needs to come from the wider public.
Research has found that many young people see forms of online abuse as “normal” and “tolerated” by authority figures like the police. That’s why it’s crucial for people to learn about the real-world consequences of online abuse, to build resilience and to call out inappropriate behaviour online.
Digital literacy skills need to be embedded within the school curriculum, so that young people leave school knowing how to navigate the online world with confidence. Lessons should cover online privacy settings, reporting harmful content and teaching young people that it is real people behind the screens. Education should not stop with schools, though – parents also need to understand how social media platforms work, to ensure everyone is helping to tackle online abuse.
Jesy Nelson’s journey, as documented in Odd One Out, should be a starting point for meaningful discussions about the harsh realities of social media, and the horrific consequences online abuse can have – especially for young people.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts as a result of cyber-bullying, phone Samaritans on 116 123. Young people under the age of 19 can also phone Childline on 0800 1111. These services operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.