When kids communicate online, their relationships in real life may help them determine whether someone is cyberbullying.
Emoticons, writing in all caps and using acronyms can influence adolescents’ perceptions of what their peers write, helping replace other cues like tone of voice and facial expressions that might help them interpret meaning in real life. Still, an offline relationship guides how kids might interpret ambiguous sentences such as, “I’ll find you after school. 🙂 ”
Michal Bak, a graduate student at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, presented a pilot study on how young people process information online during a symposium entitled “Cyber Aggression – Perceptions, Behaviors and Influential Factors.” While knowing a writer helps, research in the field so far suggests that other things come into play, such as social status, when kids react to what’s put online, he said.
“Social status cues may be more prominent in online settings, because adolescents can obtain additional info like followers, positive comments, likes and up-votes,” Bak said. The 30 youngsters he and his team interviewed often couldn’t recall receiving ambiguous messages, but “sometimes emoticons tend to obscure the message, and we find that students tend to hide their real intentions using them,” he said.
More people may be liable to come to a victim’s defense in real life, too, according to work from Nicole Summers, a graduate student at Carleton University. She and her research colleagues are studying moral disengagement in cyber aggression.
Looking at almost 500 emerging adults in Canada ages 16 to 20, she and her colleagues found that over 88 percent of them reported having read insults or mean comments in social media forums at least once in the past year, and over 35 percent of participants witnessed these behaviors weekly. Those who had higher levels of moral disengagement – such as believing one couldn’t help, blaming or dehumanizing the bullying victim, or disregarding help – were more likely to have pro-bullying behaviors such as enjoying reading mean online posts.
“In [real life] social situations you can be an insider, meaning somebody who goes along with bullying, but being online you’re always an outsider. You don’t have to disengage online, because you’re already disengaged to begin with,” she said.
When it comes to online versus social aggression, gender may make a difference, said Megan Lamb, a graduate student at Carleton University. In her study of 429 students ages 11 to 18 in rural eastern Canada, 86 percent reported using social aggression against a friend, and 92 percent reported being socially victimized by a friend in the past school year. The bullying happened online, too, and there was a strong relationship to bullying or being victimized in both arenas. About half of all students reported using cyber aggression against a friend in the past school year, and 67 percent reported being victimized.
Girls reported using and being victims of face-to-face social aggression more than boys. However, boys and girls did not differ much in how often they engaged in cyber aggression.
“Boys are often less comfortable using social aggression, but because cyber aggression is more anonymous, maybe [they] feel more comfortable using that,” she said.