Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, more of people’s day-to-day activities have taken place at home. They include virtual offices, distance education, online shopping, doctor visits, and digital entertainment.
However, this phenomenon has increased the risk of cyber-attacks, including attacks on people with mental illnesses.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated that the number of cybercrimes reported from January to May 2020 was nearly the same as the number for the entire year of 2019(1). While network security equipment is critical for boosting cybersecurity, human factors are another essential component.
Several factors affect potential victims’ vulnerability, including:
- Online activities
- Personal traits
- Individual behavior
- Attitudes about technology
It’s thus crucial for psychiatrists to know about the possible effects of cyber-attacks and patient risks. This scenario can include the impact of web-based mental health services during the coronavirus outbreak.
People with mental illnesses might have a higher vulnerability to cybercrimes(2). This group includes individuals with severe psychiatric conditions and senior citizens who might become victims of several kinds of online financial fraud.
During the global pandemic, people with mental illnesses may have difficulty resorting to their usual coping mechanisms to deal with cybercrimes. This situation is due to factors such as social isolation and daily routine changes.
Today it’s more likely for people to experience adverse psychological effects from cybercrimes and online fraud. A 2021 Pew Research survey shows that about one-third of American adults are almost constantly online(3).
It’s worth noting that individuals lack many complex online security defense systems that big corporations and institutions can implement. This scenario makes it more challenging for people to deal with social media attacks, for example.
Here are some of the main psychological effects that cyber-attack victims experience:
Hack attacks and other cyber crimes can cause not only financial problems but also mental stress. The victims might also find it difficult to trust anyone online.
This emotional stress may stem not only from stolen data itself but also from ways the cybercriminal might use the data. These criminals may use email threats to expose the cybercrime victim.
In extreme cases, victims won’t just feel anger and worry but even experience Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Becoming a victim of cybercrime is one of the many events that can cause a person to become “shell shocked”(4). This condition dating back to World War I affects many adults.
One of the main features of PTSD is it causes long-term consequences after the cyber-attack happens. A person might experience anger, fear, and sadness, or events like nightmares and flashbacks(5).
When online victims experience cybercrimes, such “cyber trauma” can become life-changing.
Developing PTSD and other emotional traumas is more likely when security breaches involve personal data. This factor is due to the victims being more likely to experience feelings of vulnerability and failure.
Guilt and Shame
Cybercrimes are often faceless crimes. However, victims might not report cybercrimes, such as phishing attacks and email malware. They might blame themselves for reasons such as weak cybersecurity.
Such shame and guilt can result from victim-blaming in which victims blame themselves for the online crime. These events could cause the victims to go offline.
Feelings of Helplessness
A 2010 survey by cybersecurity firm Symantec Corporation showed that 80% of cybercrime victims believed the judicial system would bring the cybercriminals to justice(6). They also might think they could be the victim of future cybercrimes.
The feelings of helplessness might cause the victim to become isolated. They might even decide to quit social media or go offline altogether to avoid more digital crimes.
Meanwhile, “learned helplessness” can result from people feeling a repeated event that is stressful and uncontrollable(7). This condition causes them not to use control mechanisms when they’re available even though they could help prevent cyber-attacks, for example.
A victim might explain they were unprepared and never expected to be a cyber-attack victim. In this case, they believe that installing strong antivirus software won’t be sufficient to protect them from future attacks.
This helplessness may also be because they’ve been victims multiple times.
Such physical effects of cybercrimes affect not only a person’s physical well-being but also their mental health.
For example, a person might turn to binge eating as a way to cope with online fraud. “Emotional eating” is a way that people suppress negative emotions, such as(8):
This situation often causes people to eat foods high in calories, sugar, or fat. If you have weight-loss goals, they may be disrupted.
It’s worth noting that part of the problem is related to how you deal with stressful situations, like becoming a cybercrime victim.
What’s critical is how you deal with a stressful situation like being the victim of malicious software. Instead of doing exercise, yoga, or meditation, some people stress out.
Being a victim of such software may also cause individuals to do impulsive actions, like binge eating.
The stress experienced from cybercrimes can also trigger other compulsive behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse. Studies show that people who experience stress might be more likely to use illicit drugs(9).
Cybercrimes can also cause insomnia as victims toss and turn worrying about stolen data or financial situations. Various life situations, such as money problems, can cause stress-triggered sleep disorders(10).
Many people around the world experienced higher-than-normal stress levels in 2020 due to global lockdowns and quarantines, which disrupted everyday life related to work, school, and shopping.
Stress is closely linked to many sleep problems, including insomnia(11).
Being a cybercrime victim can become a vicious cycle. You might be unable to get a full night’s sleep because you’re worried about your situation. This sleeplessness is due to higher levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
In the digital age, the likelihood of cyber-attacks has increased exponentially as more people spend more time online.
Becoming a victim of cybercrimes can trigger emotional responses, including anger, worry, and guilt.
If you become a victim, it’s crucial to take security precautions, talk to your loved ones about your experiences, and consider seeking the help of mental health professionals.
- FBI. (2021, March 3). Increasing cyber crime since the pandemic: concerns for psychiatry. Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11920-021-01228-w.
- Perrin, A. and Atske, S. (2021, March 21). About three-in-ten U.S. adults say they are ‘almost constantly’ online. Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2021/03/26/about-three-in-ten-u-s-adults-say-they-are-almost-constantly-online/
- American Psychiatric Association. What is posttraumatic stress disorder?. Retrieved from https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd.
- Roberts, P. (2010, Sep 8). Cybercrime survey finds lots of victims, lots of guilt. Retrieved from https://threatpost.com/cyber-crime-survey-finds-lots-victims-lots-guilt-090810/74440/.
- American Psychological Association. Apa Dictionary of Psychology. Retrieved from https://dictionary.apa.org/learned-helplessness
- Mayo Clinic. Weight loss: Gain control of emotional eating. Retrieved from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/in-depth/weight-loss/art-20047342.
- Editorial Staff. (2021, Feb 18) How does stress relate to drug abuse?. Retrieved from https://oxfordtreatment.com/substance-abuse/co-occurring-disorders/stress/.
- Foley, L. (2020, Sep 17). Stress and insomnia. Retrieved from https://www.sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/stress-and-insomnia