Living With Polio

Bullying on Internet

Post-Polio Health, Volume 31, Number 4, Fall 2015

Dr. Stephanie T. Machell is a psychologist in independent practice in the Greater Boston area and consultant to the International Rehabilitation Center for Polio, Spaulding-Framingham Outpatient Center, Framingham, Massachusetts.

Her father was a polio survivor.

QUESTION: I participate in a Facebook group for polio survivors. I want to contribute honestly, but many times my response isn’t what others “believe.” I have felt bullied a few times in the past, and just backed off. I find that I gain from it, so I don’t want to leave the group. Do you have suggestions as to how to respond in these instances?

Response from Stephanie T. Machell, PsyD: Unfortunately, this is a common problem in groups. Opinions and experiences that differ from what the group as a whole believes threaten one or more members, triggering an attack on the person expressing them. Members become reluctant to share. Some leave.

Have other group members been bullied when they’ve said things others don’t “believe?” Or are they careful to stay within the parameters of accepted beliefs? The group “norm” may be total agreement and avoidance of controversy. Or members, aware that there are one or more group bullies, may have just stopped commenting.

Because social media brings out the “trolls” (e.g., those whose posts are vitriolic attacks on those with whom they disagree) as well as the “troll” in otherwise decent people, Facebook groups usually have rules that are posted as part of the group description. Groups may have a moderator who among other things takes responsibility for insuring that the rules are followed. Often the moderator posts reminders of these rules, especially after they’ve been violated.

A common group rule is that posts and comments should be respectful. If your group has this rule and a moderator, send her/him a private message describing your experience and requesting that s/he communicate with the bully about this. You might also request that the moderator post a reminder of the group rules. If there are no rules or moderator, you could propose that the group consider changing this (though don’t be surprised if others take this to mean you’re volunteering!).

If what you get out of the group is reading what others post, remaining in the group but not commenting or posting (or only on “safe” topics) is one option. Or you could write a post about your experiences, and/or ask whether others have had the same or similar experiences and how they have handled them. Or you could post a question about how the group should respond when others have experiences or express opinions that differ from the majority.

Or you could continue to participate as you have. If you now expect to be attacked, it is important to make sure you’re not coming across as apologetic or defensive, which can provoke attack or bullying. If you are attacked anyway, the best response is either ignoring it or replying with something along the lines of, “This is my experience. Please respect it.” And leave it at that. Remember that the bully wants a reaction. If there is none s/he will look for more interesting victims.

Before you post anything, consider the risks and benefits of doing so. Does the opportunity to share and the positive feedback you may get about what you want to say outweigh the possibility that you will be bullied? Then post to the group. Will the bullying cause you to feel invalidated, even if you also receive positive responses? It might be best to post in a more supportive venue.

Different groups provide different benefits. And there is no reason to limit yourself to one.

Tags for this article:
Mental Health
Psychological Health