Being Trolled Reminded Me How Dangerous Social Media Can Be For Mental Health

Becky Barnes
social media

It was a cold, grey, Autumn Tuesday in October when a flurry of notifications hit my Twitter mentions. As a “lady no-one has ever heard of”, to quote my new fans, it was more notifications than a “special snowflake” like me usually gets. One click and all was revealed: Piers Morgan had quote tweeted me. 

A Piers Morgan quote tweet has happened to a few of my colleagues across the industry before, and I knew what this would mean: RIP my mentions.

Earlier that day, the Good Morning Britain host performed a mocking impression of Greta Thunberg’s powerful UN climate action summit speech from September. Putting on an accent, he said: “How dare you. You have stolen my morning. You have stolen my airtime. I have no life. How dare you.” 

It wasn’t unexpected that Piers Morgan was being controversial – it certainly isn’t the first time the pundit has courted controversy – nor was it a surprise that a middle-aged, white man was bullying the 16-year-old climate activist, who has Asperger’s. After all, it comes just over a week after Jeremy Clarkson called her a spoilt brat in his newspaper column.

All the same, I decided to call it out. I’m really fed up of Greta being used as an easy target when she’s just standing up for what she believes in – so why shouldn’t I?

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I tweeted: “Putting on an accent and mimicking a 16-year-old girl is bullying @piersmorgan. You should be ashamed!”

Maybe as a journalist with a blue tick verification on Twitter, I am seen as “fair game” to Morgan and his 6.8 million followers. Maybe he just doesn’t consider the power he can wield with his following when one quote tweet can send another user to the lions. Later the same day he quote tweeted two Twitter users, one with 181 followers and one with 352, something I find troubling. Is it right that high profile social media users, who often command distribution lists the size of small countries, are able to disseminate information with no checks and balances? Shouldn’t there by some kind of moral code for how to wield that power? 

And thus the nameless, faceless trolls of Twitter descended: “Shut up”, “grow up”, “grow a pair”, “Oh get a life you complete humourless dweeb” they chanted. “Get a grip”, “Oh shut up”, “you bloody snowflake”, yet more piled in – a neverending onslaught of criticism from accounts with two things in common: no human name and no human photo; sometimes no photo whatsoever.

Along came the GIFs too: “TRIGGERED”, “Gretzilla”, and of course the anonymous troll army favourite: an onslaught of snowflake-related content. 

Others picked out and mocked stuff from my Twitter bio – including my mention of mental health. There was a pernicious thread of sexism across the comments too: “Calm down the hysterics lady”, “Christ you’re boring love”. 

“Grow a pair” was a common theme. According to Urban dictionary (which I secretly check loads more now I am post-30) that means “Telling someone they don’t have the balls that they SHOULD have to do something “manly”” Oh dear. As a cis female, what exactly am I supposed to do about that?

“There’s only gonna be one winner in this fight and I’ll give you a clue...it won’t be the lady no-one has ever heard of!” remarked a faceless account with a profile pic of a skull. Who said it was a fight?

At first, I found it quite funny. The hypocrisy and cowardly behaviour was like water off a duck’s back. My mental health goes up and down but that day I felt mentally resilient.

But after more than 600 replies, I noticed myself getting obsessed with reading them, and although words from faceless strangers shouldn’t get me down, I began to feel mentally exhausted.

In December last year, Amnesty International revealed women on Twitter are abused every 30 seconds. I am very aware that I come from a place of privilege and this experience was nothing compared to what female MPs and high-profile journalists, particularly LGBTQ and Bame women, experience day in day out. Nor did the expletive responses I received amount to the death or rape threats many of these women receive daily. But it gave me a taste.

If I had been in a more vulnerable place, this experience would have been even more difficult to ignore and could even have pushed my mental health over the brink. And it started to.

I am huge advocate of self-care, especially to myself and also want to use my platform (albeit small compared to some, Piers) to break down stigma around mental health and also help as many people as I can. But in this experience, the self-care (muting, ignoring, stepping away) began to slip.

People who hide behind nameless faceless Twitter profiles need to have a long hard look in the mirror. My message to anyone who wants to use social media positively is not only look out for each other but most importantly yourself.

Becky Barnes is audience editor at HuffPost UK

Useful websites and helplines:

  • Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
  • Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
  • The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: help@themix.org.uk
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers practical help through its advice line which can be reached on 0300 5000 927 (open Monday to Friday 10am-4pm). More info can be found on www.rethink.org

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