In this op-ed, Riverdale‘s Bernadette Beck explains how cyberbullying on social media has impacted her mental health.
For a solid year and a half, death threats flooded my DMs. Yes, these threats were directed at me, but they weren’t really about me. Instead, the vitriol in my inbox was directed at the person these people thought I was because of a character I play on television. As the “unlikeable” Peaches ‘N Cream on Riverdale, I do and say very little, and people hate me because of it. To the stan accounts that sent the threats, I wasn’t a real person, just a character on television. Hatred toward my character transformed into hatred toward me; whether racism or false accusations, you name it, I’ve experienced it.
When I accepted the role on the wildly popular show, I had no idea how much hate my character would incite, or that it would be hurled at me. I was just excited to be part of something great. I hoped for the best, did my job, and wore my heart on my sleeve. I eagerly replied to DMs and comments from the fandom, but when their interest transformed into cyberbullying, I shut everything down — myself included. My happiness turned into depression. I was filled with pain, anxiety, and sadness, both on and offline.
Looking back, the onslaught of hatred I experienced was only a symptom of a much greater problem. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center Survey, more than half of teens said they have been bullied online, and 16% said they have experienced online threats like I did. Sure, social media has allowed us to unite as a global village, which has played a key role in spreading awareness and education necessary to create a better future; but I’m concerned that the forces of good on social media may be outweighed by the hate speech that can go largely unchecked.
Social media has truly become a breeding ground for hatred. This goes beyond a difference in opinion when people are being harmed, specifically children and teens who are cyberbullied. According to a study published last year in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, researchers found that psychological stress, suicidal ideation, suicide, and attempted suicide cases among youth increased by more than 70% from 2008 to 2017. Furthermore, in 2015, LGBTQ+ youth were almost five times more likely to attempt suicide compared with heterosexual youth, according to a 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This, of course, isn’t all because of social media; suicide is complex, and there’s no one reason someone considers it. But social media can have a negative impact on mental health, and research has found associations between social media and certain suicidal behaviors. In some communities, parents and schools are now joining forces to implement outreach programs and petition for enhanced safety tools and privacy settings on social platforms.
That said, hate organizations and violent extremist groups continue to thrive on Facebook, despite the platform’s pledge to “keep people safe and prevent real-world harm from manifesting on our services,” as stated in their Dangerous Individuals and Organizations policy. Public announcements to combat hate speech and misinformation have been made across the platform, but many hate organizations are still overlooked and remain active on the site. (Just this month, Facebook announced it would ban QAnon from the platform, three years after its conception.)
Additionally, after President Donald Trump’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Twitter said “tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm, or fatal disease against anyone are not allowed,” a statement that was bewildering to anyone like me who has been the target of all kinds of threats on the platform. Many quote tweeted the statement with examples of their own harassment for which Twitter took no action.