The Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture

Cancel Culture Concept

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What Is Cancel Culture?

Cancel culture is a cultural boycott. It allows "marginalized people to seek accountability where the justice system fails.”

According to Dictionary.com, cancel culture refers to "the popular practice of withdrawing support for (canceling) public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive. [It’s] generally discussed as being performed on social media in the form of group shaming.”

To be "canceled" means that a group decides to stop supporting a person, place, or thing based off a perceived or actual transgression. 

Call Out vs. Cancel Culture

These terms are often used interchangeably, but there is a difference. Call out culture is about calling attention to someone's wrongdoing and giving them a chance to learn. Cancel culture, does not give the person the chance to learn from their mistake. Instead, the person is immediately labeled as "bad."

Origin of Cancel Culture

Interestingly, although canceling is often used to call out sexism, the term itself originates from sexist “humor.” Possibly the first reference of canceling someone came from the film New Jack City, where Nino Brown played by Wesley Snipes states mercilessly to his ex-girlfriend “Cancel that [woman]. I’ll buy another one.”

But the term really took off in 2014 thanks to a 2014 episode of VH1's reality show "Love and Hip-Hop: New York." In it, music executive and record producer Cisco Rosado ended an argument with his girlfriend by saying "you're cancelled.”

From there, the word took on a life of its own, often among Black users on Twitter. It was used as a way to show disapproval for a person's actions as a joke or lighthearted criticism. It wasn’t until later that canceling someone involved boycotting them professionally.

Mental Health Effects of Cancel Culture

Cancel culture has been incredibly effective at combating wrongdoing, especially sexism and racism. It demands social change and addresses many inequalities.

In 2016, many members of the film community boycotted the Oscars because of the lack of diversity among nominees. And canceling the Oscars resulted in real social change. In 2019, the Oscars set a record for the most wins by Black nominees ever.

A community that unites against someone who has done something unforgivable can be empowering. It can also make people think twice before behaving inappropriately or posting potentially offensive views. But there are also negative effects resulting from cancel culture.

The Canceled

Unfortunately, canceling often turns into bullying. Like bullying, if you've been canceled, it can make you to feel ostracized, socially isolated, and lonely. And research shows that loneliness is associated with higher anxiety, depression, and suicide rates. 

It can feel as if everyone is giving up on you before you've even have the chance to apologize. Instead of creating a dialogue to help you understand how your actions hurt them, the cancelers shut off all communication with you, essentially robbing you of the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes or insensitivities. 

In order to truly grow and become a better person, you need to be able to realize a mistake was made, fix that mistake, and take the proper steps to ensure you don't make the same mistake again.

The Canceler

You have the right to set your own boundaries—to decide what uplifts you and what offends you. You also have the right to decide whom and what you give your attention, money, and support to.

But canceling the offending person (or brand) doesn't actually make them go away. And if you don't have a close relationship with them, publicly shaming someone is unlikely to change their beliefs or lead to lasting change. All it does is make them dig in their heels even more (often to defend their egos and reputation).

Think about your own childhood. What if your parents canceled you every time you hurt or disappointed them? Where would you be now?

The Bystander

Cancel culture doesn’t just affect the canceled and the cancelers. It can also wreak havoc on onlookers’ mental health.

After seeing so many people canceled, some bystanders can get plagued with fear. They may become overwhelmed with anxiety that people will turn on them. That others will find something into their pasts to use against them.

So, instead of saying something and drawing attention to themselves, they remain silent. Long after the incident is over, some bystanders can be weighed down with guilt. Guilt for not standing up for someone when they had the chance.

How to Protect Your Mental Health

Though you can't control how others behave, you can control your behavior as well as how you respond to negativity. Here are some ways to do so:

  • Think twice before posting. Try not to post when you're feeling overly emotional. If someone says or does something that pushes your hot buttons, don't rush to your keyboard. Instead, take a few deep breaths. Remember, the internet never forgets.
  • Spend less time online. It's OK to take a break from social media. In fact, some say unplugging every now and then can help improve your mental health. According to one study, cutting back on your social media use decreases loneliness and depression.
  • Talk to someone. If you're experiencing cancel culture firsthand, consider reaching out to someone you trust, such as your parents or a close friend. If you're not comfortable talking to someone you know, consider seeking professional help. Having someone to confide in can make a huge difference in the way you feel.

A Word From Verywell

Some aspects of cancel culture can be useful in holding people and organizations accountable for bad behavior. On the flip side, it can take bullying to a new level, damaging the mental well-being of everyone involved.

The key to overcoming any sort of ostracism or rejection is to not allow the things that are said and done to you define who you are as a person. And don't be afraid to reach out for help. Having someone in your corner will help you feel more connected and less alone.

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  1. Britannica ProCon. Is Cancel Culture (or "Callout Culture") Good for Society?. Updated August 5, 2020.

  2. Dictionary.com. What Does Cancel Culture Mean?.

  3. Beutel ME, Klein EM, Brähler E, et al. Loneliness in the general population: prevalence, determinants and relations to mental health. BMC Psychiatry. 2017;17(1):97. doi:10.1186/s12888-017-1262-x

  4. Hunt MG, Marx R, Lipson C, Young J. No more FOMO: Limiting social media decreases loneliness and depression. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2018;37(10):751-768. doi:10.1521/jscp.2018.37.10.751

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