Creating safe and resilient online relationships

Tuesday 8 February 2022

Today (8 February) marks Safer Internet Day, exploring respect and relationships online. Shireen Walton from Bee Resilient explores the psychological impact of online fraud and cyber attacks and provides top tips of how to move forward if you have fallen victim to online scams. 

Almost two years ago the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Dr Jenny Harries said COVID-19 would ‘test the strength’ of relationships. Lockdown, self-isolation and working from home encouraged us to develop online relationships to stay connected. We had no choice. We found meaning through our online presence, increasing our screen time substantially. We have never been so connected.  

‘Healthy digital habits’ keep us mentally well and healthy. We know that mindful and regulated use of cyber can enhance our wellbeing, both physically and mentally. 

Online yoga is a fabulous way to stay fit and sharing ideas with likeminded people gives us a sense of belonging, meaning and purpose. Having a healthy cyber life can enrich us in many ways, giving us access to new knowledge, helping us to make choices and informed decisions.   

Yet research shows ‘excessive screen time’ creates mental health problems such as ‘low emotional stability, and greater risk of depression and anxiety’. Impulsive and unregulated and addictive behaviour increases with increased digital use.  

Fraud 

Online fraud has increased substantially during the pandemic through scams and romance fraud. Between 2020 and 2021, online fraud went up by 33%, totalling £2.3 billion by June 2021

Online shopping, stolen credit cards, and false ‘lookalike’ websites have contributed to fraudsters’ success. UK Finance research has shown that online romance fraud increased by 20% during the pandemic, costing £68 million in 2020 alone. Women have been particularly vulnerable, leaving them ‘out of love and out of pocket’.  

Loneliness, social isolation, and the desire for connection and meaningful relationships provides a gateway for criminal gangs to prey on hopes and dreams. Such vulnerability can leave the victim feeling deeply ashamed and too embarrassed to come forward. With an estimated five per cent of cases reported, it is the tip of the iceberg. 

The psychological impact on health and wellbeing is well documented. According to psychologist Brenee Brown, shame ‘causes people to feel trapped, powerless and isolated and can be extremely negative if left unchecked'. We all desire to belong, to feel part of a family or friendship group.  

Shame 

We may not want to admit to our work colleagues, friends, and family that we have been a victim of an online scam. Being shamed into silence can have a devasting impact on our personal and corporate lives.

The psychology of shame has been well researched and there are steps that help us to feel empathy, connection, power and freedom: 

  • Recognising the personal vulnerability that led to shame. 
  • Recognising the external factors that led to the feelings of shame. 
  • Connecting with others to receive and offer empathy. 
  • Discussing and deconstructing the feelings of shame. 

Admitting that we have been a victim of crime is essential to regain our self-esteem and psychological wellbeing. In addition, work colleagues, friends and family can contribute to helping those who have been affected by online crime.  

The question is: how do we become resilient and maintain our health and wellbeing when faced with the potential of cyber crime? 

The science of positive psychology gives us a thrive framework in which to integrate resilience into organisations and workforces. Positive psychology was formally established under the auspices of Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi to understand what made for a good and happy life.  

It is important to tell the story of online fraud experiences as a way to heal as well as to inform others: 

  • The framework of storytelling can be a way to share an individual’s experience of the trials and tribulations of life.  
  • Communicating the hero’s journey, from to water cooler chats to Zoom based virtual coffees, is a way to talk about life and share experiences. 
  • Honest writing of a traumatic experience can aid recovery significantly over a short period of time.  
  • Giving organisations and teams time to reflect is a prerequisite for resilience and agility.  
  • Being honest with those around you about your digital experience. 
  • Setting aside time to create or play, which leads to more innovation, problem solving and productivity.  
  • Giving the opportunity to admit failure, to show vulnerability without shame, creates an environment to learn by doing.  
  • Showing gratitude, giving thanks for each day and showing appreciation creates a culture of reciprocity and mutual support. 

Shireen Walton holds a degree in history, politics and international relations, Postgraduate Certificate of Education, two Masters of Science degrees in Information Technology and Positive Psychology Coaching. She is studying for her PhD in human behaviour and cyber security looking specifically at online romance and fraud. She spent most of her career working for the intelligence services and Ministry of Defence in cyber security and developing information systems. Shireen works as a consultant and is the founder of beeresilient.co.uk.

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