Anonymity: The Key To Social Media Cyberbullying?

May 07, 2013

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Social Media apps

Cyberbullying is a topic on the minds of most parents with Internet-using youngsters.  That’s just about all parents, by the way – 95% of all teens age 12-17 are now online.  But online harassment doesn’t just affect kids and teens.  A recent study in the UK found that 8 out of 10 workers surveyed at several UK universities had been harassed online in the last six months (most commonly being humiliated, ignored or gossiped about online).  Many researchers suggest a link between the relative anonymity of comments posted online as well as the lack of social cues inherent in non-visual communication with a rise in cyberbullying on social media networks.

According to research compiled by the non-profit organization Pew Internet, participation in social media networks like Facebook and Twitter is greater than ever.  A whopping 80% of internet users aged 12-17, 83% of internet-using young adults (age 18-29) and 77% of internet users age 30-49 use social networking sites.  While the majority of social media users report that “people are mostly kind” on social media (85% of social network-using adults and 69% of teens aged 12-17), more teens report unfriendly experiences.  When polled by Pew Internet Project researchers, 5% of adults reported people are mostly unkind versus 20% of teens.

Among social media-using teens, 88% have seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social media site.  Of those, 90% of teens who witnessed online cruelty say they have ignored it, 35% reporting that they do so frequently.

Many studies have shown that anonymity increases the likelihood that people will behave badly.  A famous 1950s experiment by Yale professor Robert Milgram instructed study participants to deliver supposedly increasingly painful electric shocks to “students” (actually actors) when they answered memory questions incorrectly.  The study was meant to show that everyday people can be influenced to bad behavior when instructed to do so by someone in a position of authority.  What it also showed is that those that couldn’t see victims were more likely to give potentially lethal doses of electric shock.

This science can be applied to online interactions.  Even people who know each other are more inclined to be rude, hurtful or thoughtless when they aren’t face-to-face.  In an interview with Health magazine, Lenox Hill Hospital’s clinical psychologist Alan Manevitz, M.D. explained, “There’s a freedom of speech without a fear of consequences.”  It doesn’t help that humans usually respond to visual cues like body language, gestures and facial expressions as well as tone of voice when placing comments in context.  This can lead to online comments being read and interpreted as more aggressive or threatening than intended and cause recipients to respond in kind.

One in four teens reports they are “cell-mostly” internet users, using a phone to access the internet more often than a standard computer.  Internet use on mobile handheld devices increases the likelihood your teen may become involved in cyberbullying.  When there was only one portal to the internet—the family computer—it was easier for parents to monitor their kid’s online activities.  Not only could parents more readily observe where their kid was spending his time online, they could watch for signs their child was being harassed and more easily ensure that their teen wasn’t participating in treating others poorly.  Mobile devices allow teens to be more often online unsupervised.

There’s also a certain “pack mentality” to social media interactions.  A surprising 21% of social media-using teens admitted to joining in when they witnessed online cruelty.  All of this can make Facebook and Twitter a potentially dangerous place for those with shaky self-esteem (you know, just about every teenager) or frankly anyone without a very thick skin.

Luckily, the structure of Facebook at least ties comments to a poster’s profile, which removes some of the anonymity.  Publicly acknowledging harassment is often all it takes to cause a bully or someone making unkind comments to back off.  The psychological drive behind a bully is often a desire to feel power over a potential victim.  Politely but firmly telling them to back off is an important first step.

However, before you respond with anger to a comment or status update posted online, take a breather.  Try to imagine yourself in a room with the person and what it would feel like to say it to their face.  If that scenario makes you uncomfortable, better wait until you’re calm and reply with grace.

Finally, I know we’ve said it before (ok, a lot), but talk to your kids about their social media experiences.  Set rules about when they can use social media and under what terms, make sure that they limit their interactions to only close friends and family, and monitor their account privacy settings to ensure that they don’t get in over their heads.

If you like the idea of your kids being able to connect and learn with phones but they're not quite responsible enough to handle the vast freedom and dangers of the internet, consider buying Net Nanny for your child's Android smartphone. It filters the kind of website content they can see, masks profanity, and you can set it to block your child from using other apps to get around the restriction. It works for both Android tablets and smartphones.