Cyber harassment and abuse of people with long term chronic conditions and disabilities is leading to an increase in mental and physical health problems, new research has revealed.
Many victims claimed that online harassment had ruined their lives, with some left unable to work after developing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.
Research findings from Dr Zhraa Alhaboby, a lecturer in Public Health at the University of Wolverhampton, have contributed to a new House of Commons report focusing on online abuse and the experience of disabled people.
The report suggests the current laws are currently unfit for purpose to protect people with disabilities online.
Dr Alhaboby's research examined the experiences of more than 150 respondents aged 18-65 who were sourced via patient support groups alongside insight from GPs in the UK. Findings revealed that most were targeted because of their various conditions. A total of 340 health conditions were recorded including respiratory disease, mental and behavioural disorders, skin conditions, nervous system diseases, visual and hearing impairments and diseases of the musculoskeletal system.
The stress many felt was exacerbated by “doxing”—revealing identifying information, such as full name, home address and employer’s address. Some victims without 'visible' conditions were targeted because they did not look ill, while many ended up too afraid to leave their home.
More than 60 per cent had been contacted by perpetrators via Facebook but 13 per cent had been victimised in online health forums and most harassers were strangers.
Dr Alhaboby said: "The impact of cyber-victimisation on the victims was devastating, and was physical, mental and social. In some cases, harassers had even infiltrated online support groups and many victims claimed their lives had been ruined.
"It was clear from the findings that victims suffered from deteriorating health and struggled to get the right support. There needs to be more awareness, a change in perceptions, training for frontline staff and new legislation."
A health promotion tool has since been developed to increase awareness and improve the support available to victims.
Dr Alhaboby’s research provided evidence to better understand the impact of cyber-victimisation from a health perspective. She is keen to continue working in this area and influence change.
Date issued: Friday, 29 March 2019