The Faceless Foe: Cyberbullying In Veterinary Medicine

Veterinary cyberbullying

Whilst you would think that cyberbullying is reserved for school children or teenagers, it is increasingly becoming an issue within the veterinary sphere. 

With one in five vets experiencing online abuse, many professionals are increasingly at risk of cyberbullying. Of these bullying incidents, most occur on Facebook or Yelp, arising from issues related to patient care (such as disputes over costs)1

The ramifications of this are huge. Many veterinary professionals are already fearful of making mistakes at work. The added burden of knowing that a mishap could result in a torrent of online abuse is sure to put many on edge. 

But why is cyberbullying such a problem in veterinary medicine? And how does it affect its victims?

Why People CyberBully 

Cyberbullies are not too dissimilar from your run-of-the-mill, schoolyard bullies. 

Research has shown that cyberbullies tend to have higher levels of ‘trait anger’ and moral disengagement. Trait anger delineates the tendency to become angered easily, and moral disengagement encapsulates the psychological process whereby individuals convince themselves that they are exempt from moral standards. These predisposing factors, alongside the dehumanizing aspects of social media, can create a sense of ‘inhibition’ for perpetrators, spurring them to behave in ways they wouldn’t in real life23

Veterinary professionals may seem like an apt target for such individuals, given the sensitive nature of their work. Oftentimes, misunderstandings arise due to knowledge gaps between professionals and pet owners. Owners can become angered when confused or scared, and as a result, project this distress onto professionals. 

Cyberbullying can also occur among veterinary professionals. In a Veterinary Economics Business Issues Survey, researchers found that one in five veterinarians have been bullied by their boss, and around 20% have experienced bullying from their co-workers.

This type of bullying most commonly occurs due to staff infighting. It can also happen when former staff members turn to social media to complain about their colleagues. These incidents can lead to tensions within the team and adverse mental effects such as depression and anxiety4.

How CyberBullying Impacts Its Victims

The effects of cyberbullying can be devastating. 

Systematic mistreatment over time not only stunts professionals’ growth but also their motivation to develop and improve. 

In comparison to face-to-face bullying, victims of online abuse are far more likely to turn to substances to cope5. Furthermore, victims tend to experience increased levels of anxiety, depression, and burnout6. Extreme instances of prolonged bullying have even be associated with post-traumatic stress disorder7.  

Veterinary cyberbullying

One example of the results of online abuse can be seen when looking at the case of a practice owner in New York (whom we have not named in respect to her family).  

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), only a month after opening a Bronx practice, the vet in question began to receive a torrent of abuse from a group called the ‘Veterinary Abuse Project’. 

This abuse had been prompted after a local woman sued the practice for taking in a stray cat she had been feeding. 

Following the lawsuit, the practice owner was subjected to attacks on social media, from a number of anonymous assailants. The situation was so severe that protesters began to arrive at the clinic, taunting the practice owner in person.

According to her colleagues, the combination of the abuse, the lawsuit, and the pre-existing financial issues pushed the veterinarian over the edge – tragically resulting in her suicide. 

In another case of bullying, a practice owner based in Chicago was mercilessly harassed by protesters after the release of an anti-clawing film. The doctor concerned was subjected to numerous threatening phone calls, emails, and Facebook posts after the release of ‘The Paw Project’, a documentary criticizing veterinary bodies and practices for not supporting declawing bans. 

Whilst the doctor concerned opposed such practices, this did not deter the protestors involved8

Though these cases were extreme – they represent a wider issue that is not going away any time soon. Particularly with the increase in online services, veterinary professionals are more exposed, and hence vulnerable, to online abuse.

What To Do If You Receive Abuse Online 

If you have ever been a victim of cyberbullying, it is important to know that you are not alone. 

In the U.S, Roughly four in ten adults have experienced online harassment, with 62% of adults considering it a major problem9

If you’re the victim of cyberbullying you should:

-Take a screenshot of the incident, in case you ever need to prove what happened. 

-If the message is via social media, report the message on the platform. 

-Block the user to prevent you from seeing their messages. 

-Speak to someone about the incident. Whether that’s your boss, co-worker, or even partner, talking it through can help you rationalize upsetting situations. 

-If the incident is affecting your mental health then seeking professional advice and support to resolve the issue is strongly advisable.

If you are a practice owner receiving a business complaint, it is often best to contact the person directly to address any concerns offline. The vast majority of complaints can be handled relatively easily in this fashion. You can also set up google alerts, which can notify you if anyone is talking about your business online in a negative (or positive!) light. 

In extreme cases, where there are grounds to do so, you may be able to get the perpetrator charged for harassment. If so, remember to collect evidence of any messages or calls you have received if things escalate further or evidence is required further down the track. 

Sadly, regardless of any strategy, some people will continue to treat others badly online – so-called ‘Internet Trolls’. It is important to always remember that the vast (silent) majority of people do appreciate you in these cases. So try to remember this and reduce how much time you spend on social media. Easier said than done, but those who regulate time spent on devices report lower anxiety and stress levels overall. 

Being a veterinary professional can be stressful at the best of times, let alone when a client complains about you online. By engaging with positive online communities, (such as our Veterinary Career Success Group) you can uplift yourself, rather than get bogged down by online toxicity. 

Our group shares, discusses, and hosts several useful resources which are designed to help you progress in your career. So go check it out here. 

References:

1-‘Cyberbullying in veterinary medicine | American Veterinary Medical ….’ 15 Sept. 2015, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2015-09-15/cyberbullying-veterinary-medicine. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

2- ‘Trait anger and cyberbullying among young adults: A moderated ….’ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S074756321730211X. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

3- ‘A review of cyberbullying and suggestions for online psychological ….’ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214782915000251. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

4-‘Cyberbullying in veterinary medicine | American Veterinary Medical ….’ 15 Sept. 2015, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2015-09-15/cyberbullying-veterinary-medicine. Accessed 22 Jun. 2021.

5-‘Defining Cyberbullying – PubMed.’ https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29093051/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

6- ‘Workplace bullying and sickness absence: a systematic … – PubMed.’ 1 Sept. 2016, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27310716/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

7- ‘Cyberbullying linked to various types of post traumatic stress for ….’ https://www.bmj.com/company/newsroom/cyberbullying-linked-to-various-types-of-post-traumatic-stress-for-victims-and-perpetrators/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

8- ‘Fighting the cyberbully | American Veterinary Medical Association.’ 29 Oct. 2014, https://www.avma.org/javma-news/2014-11-15/fighting-cyberbully. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

9- ‘Online Harassment 2017 | Pew Research ….’ 11 Jul. 2017, https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017/. Accessed 8 Jun. 2021.

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