Social media can be a powerful source of community, opportunity, and amplified voice - but it can also be a breeding ground for bullying. With the safety of a screen and a keyboard to shield them, people feel freer than they would in real life to make hurtful comments deploring individuals for the way they look, how they live their lives, and the decisions they make.
Bullying is nothing new, but now the online world is just as relevant as the real world, it's become more inescapable than ever.
As someone who's been blogging online basically since internet began (okay, not quite, she started in 2009) Zoe Sugg - aka Zoella - has had her fair share of toxic and tormenting comments.
"I share a lot of my life online and I know first-hand how damaging it can be to be on the receiving end of hateful comments. From people criticising content I post, to being insulted for the way I look, there are people out there who will try to find the negatives in everything," she tells Cosmopolitan in aid of Anti-Bullying Week.
There's a recurring theme that the 29-year-old internet sensation has noticed: how trolling is often passed off as 'banter'. Seriously, lighten up, it was a joke!
"I try to ignore negative comments altogether, but when I do respond, I’m often told they’re ‘just banter’ and that I should let it go. Banter is never an excuse for bullying; they are different things," Zoe says defiantly. "One should make you laugh, the other does the opposite.
"When someone is hiding behind 'it’s just banter' as an excuse to say nasty comments, it's up to all of us to call out it out when we see it on and offline," she adds.
At first, Zoella recalls taking harsh, negative comments personally. It made her question what she was doing, and affected her self-esteem. But over time, with her online popularity showing no signs of slowing down, she was left with no other choice but to learn means of coping.
"I’ve had to grow a thick skin, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult some days," Zoe admits. And on those bad days? She tries to focus on her "friends and community who support and remind me why I love sharing my life online and doing the things I do."
Having been exposed to online bullying for so many years, Zoe believes half the problem is what's lost in translation. Things can come across a lot harsher via a screen - with the absence of any context or emotion - compared to being said face-to-face.
“It can be so hard to judge the tone or intent behind something when it’s a comment online or in a message or group chat," says the YouTuber. "I always remind myself to pause and reflect before sharing anything - whether that’s on social media or in messages to friends and family, especially if there’s a chance it might be received in a different way."
How to deal with online bullying
Not everyone has over 9 million followers on Instagram, but that doesn't mean that the words of online bullies don't sting just as much. So how should you go about dealing with being tormented over social media? Zoe's advice is not to bottle it up.
"Don’t suffer in silence; you need to talk about it. If you can, speak to the person who made the joke and explain how it affected you." And if you don’t feel like you can talk to them directly? "Raise the issue with someone you trust."
If you see someone else being bullied online, Zoe encourages reaching out in support. It might not seem like much of a gesture, but it's one she believes is more important than you might realise. "Being bullied can be incredibly isolating, so reaching out to someone to show your support is a small action that can mean a lot," she tells Cosmopolitan.
While there is plenty more still to be done to make the internet a more peaceful place, remember that there are tools out there that are available to you - such as blocking and reporting accounts that post negative comments.
"If it’s your account, it’s YOUR space and you should have every right to tailor that in whichever way you want to," urges Zoella.
How to block out negativity from your Instagram feed:
When you Restrict someone, comments on your posts from that person will only be visible to that person and they won’t be able to see when you are active on Instagram or have a read a direct message from them.
Instagram’s new AI powered features notifies people when their comment may be considered offensive before it’s posted, giving them a chance to reflect and choose to not post something unkind or hurtful.
Instagram has a tool that lets you decide what you want to see - go to your settings and add to your comment filter and you won’t see these come up on your posts again.
Instagram’s mute feature means you’ll still be following them but lets you decide when to view their content, without causing offence or issues as only you’ll know you’ve muted them.
This means you won’t see their content anymore, they won’t see yours either, and your account won’t appear in their searches or suggestions.
Consider turning your account to private, or using the Close Friends tool to share your Stories with a personally curated list of your followers.
You can do it on any piece of content (including DMs or comments) - in just a few taps you can report it to the Instagram and their team of reviewers work 24/7 to review reports and remove anything that breaks their guidelines.