The Psyche of a Web Bully

Cohen’s taunter focused on her sexuality. That’s typical of online attackers, who, experts say, tend to zero in on two things: physical traits and sexual behavior. Take this comment from The Dirty, on a photo of a young woman in shorts: “She’ll spread those nasty cottage cheese thighs for anybody.”

Although it’s impossible to get a gender breakdown of anonymous posters, the
tone of most of the comments on The Dirty is distinctly male. Where is all of this venom coming from? According to Danielle Citron, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law who studies online bullying, the Web has become a haven for women-haters, partly because it’s no longer socially acceptable to sexually harass women at work or school. “We’ve pushed a lot of that animus to the Internet,” she says. “That’s where men who resent women—perhaps because they feel outpaced by them at work or school—can express it anonymously.”

But there are plenty of mean girls online too. While men spread insults about women to exert power or get revenge for spurned sexual advances, says Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher and a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, women do so to compete over social status or men. Jayne Hitchcock once had a client who began receiving phone calls from male strangers requesting sex after her ex’s new wife posted false profiles of her announcing that she was “easy.”

It’s tempting to minimize the harm online trash talk can do, but in an age when everyone, from potential dates to prospective employers, googles first and asks questions later, Web chatter matters. “Having insults appear online is an especially severe form of social rejection,” Twenge says.

Take the case of one student at Florida International University who’d arrived at school freshman year weighing only 95 pounds. She’d suffered from an eating disorder in high school but worked hard in college to maintain a healthy weight. One day in 2008, while browsing a campus gossip site, she was horrified to read a flurry of online posts that described her as “fat” and a “butterball.” The insults likely made it more difficult to resist her old destructive habits. “These heartless people obviously had no idea what they were dealing with,” she says. “I felt worthless.”