Until Coronavirus stole the spotlight, there was a lot in the news recently about the effect trolling has on individuals’ mental health, particularly following the tragic suicide of Caroline Flack. The Cambridge Dictionary defines trolling specifically as the act of leaving an insulting message on the internet in order to annoy someone. That’s quite a narrow definition. In my view, it overlooks the role mainstream media, including the more sensationalist tabloids and a lot of ‘reality’ TV, plays. Both can be accused of provoking and perpetuating a culture where passing judgment on people we don’t know and being abusive is considered ‘ok’. The hateful actions or words of one can ripple through society, affecting other people’s actions and beliefs, and causing unknown damage.
Whilst we tend to hear most about celebrities that are victims of trolling, we know that this type of behaviour is not restricted to those in the public eye. Recent studies have suggested that 37% of young people between the ages of 12 and 17 have been victims of cyber bullying. Most do not tell their parents when it occurs. Another study showed that a massive 55% of adults aged between 18 and 24 had been bullied online, which suggests it’s not a habit people grow out of.
If this type of bullying behaviour is so ingrained in our culture, you can be pretty sure that, at some level, it’s happening in your organisations. So how do we fight it?
It seems to me that at the core of all bullying is an acceptance that it’s ok to pass judgement on others based on our own perceptions, without understanding the other person’s life, or caring for what hidden challenges or difficulties they might be facing. It illustrates a complete disregard for the impact our behaviour and words have on others. But most of all, it ignores the ripple effect our words and actions can have.
So, how do we change behaviours? Bullying and Harassment policies can only go so far. Indeed, a recurring theme in my Creative Training Essentials course is that knowledge doesn’t change behaviour. We’re unlikely to stop bullying by making people aware that it’s against the rules or having policies to ‘prevent’ it – we’re just as likely to simply push the problem under the surface where it’s harder to detect. Real change comes from learning – learning how our behaviours impact others, developing an understanding of the importance of empathy and recognising that, rather like icebergs, what we see on the surface does not tell us everything there is to know about the people we meet online or in person.
My feelings about the way we communicate and how the ripples from that can have unknown consequences, has prompted me this week to write a new icebreaker for Trainers’ Library called The Wizard, based on a story I heard many years ago. It’s a story revolves around the choice a wizard gives a man standing on the edge of the lake: Should he throw the rough pebble that will poison the water and bring devastation on those on the opposite shore that have offended him. Or should he throw the smooth pebble that will bring them health and happiness? It's a story that has always stayed with me and I hope, in its revised format, it has at least as much impact on our customers and their participants.