By Kieran McCartan, Ph.D. & David S. Prescott. LICSW
It almost goes without saying that the online world has changed dramatically in recent years. Where we once distinguished between the “real” and “online” worlds, their interaction now compels us to view the influence of the one on the other. How do we think about the way that we behave, our actions and interactions ion the online environment? Over the years we have heard everything from online behaviour is different from offline, online behaviour is a precursor to offline behaviour, they are all the same behaviours but in different environments.
This all means that it can be difficult to process and comprehend online behaviour, especially around sexual harassment, and abuse. This blog is a product of three stories in the press this week, the first being the ongoing case of Andrew Tate for sexual exploitation, trafficking, and misogyny; the second being a feature piece by Emily Atack trying to process if she is somehow responsible for the online abuse she has received on a daily basis; and third being the recent report that viewing Child Sexual Exploitation material increased 10 fold over lockdown. Although these three stories may seem different, they are connected through our attitude and response to the online environment and the range of sexually abusive interactions that occur there; interactions that we somehow will not tolerant offline.
The debate over freedom of speech and approaches to policing it on the internet are frustrating and often circular, ending in a dead end. It is not our desire to re-ignite them here, but to draw attention to the fact that abuse is abuse and harm is harm regardless of whether it happens online or offline. In the past few months, we have seen at least two colleagues excoriated by people in social media who were either unable, unready, or unwilling to view their comments in the proper context. In other venues, some have ended their lives as a result of online abuses. The medium through which harm occurs should not lessen the perceived reality of it or the accepted outcomes. Harm in online and virtual communities is still harm and can result in very real and tangible impacts on people’s mental health and wellbeing. But time and again we dismiss this harm as somehow less because it did not happen in person. What can we do about it?
We need to face up to some stark realities. We can remember that because something is online does not mean that it’s not real. The virtual world plays a massive role in the way that we see the actual world and our attitudes and behaviours. We need to take online harms seriously and hold platforms and corporations to account even as we support free speech more generally. A good example of this is in England and Wales where they are trying to get it put into the new online harms bill that CEOs and directors of online companies will be held criminally responsible for harmful material on their sites that endanger children. This is a significant step forward, as it promotes accountability and responsibility. Up until now, that accountability and responsibility has mainly been in the hands of the user rather than the provider. Additionally, we need to get better in teaching everyone about the reality of the internet and online environments. For years, we have operated on the assumption that people should use “common sense,” but this needs to change. A good example of this is some of the work happening is schools, as a result of the Andrew Tate case.
We are not saying that we need to ban the internet or close it down but rather we need to take these harms seriously if we are to prevent abuse. We need this “moment of clarity” to recognise that its not an aside to everyday life that its at the heart of everyday life and therefore needs to be taken seriously, we cannot strive to change the reality of offline, in person sexual abuse while ignoring the conversations, networks, images and material available online.