While online social media has revolutionised how we communicate with one another, the fact that it can be used as a forum for personal attacks, intimidation and bullying has been highlighted in recent weeks. Several pertinent questions are raised such as does online social media give rise to a more dangerous form of bullying and what is it about the psychology of online social media that gives rise to bullying in the first place?
Bullying hasn’t been invented by social media and has always been a feature of human relationships. In some surveys up to 40 per cent of children report experiencing or being involved in bullying in primary school with a similar number reporting witnessing or being affected by bullying in the workplace. However, the growth of social media has provided new avenues for this bullying to take place and the public and permanent nature of online communications can make this bullying more devastating to people who are targets of such attacks.
In addition, social media can provide a much wider audience which reinforces the bullying behaviour gaining reaction and support of a far-reaching audience of bystanders. People also seem to be more willing to make personal attacks, express disrespectful opinions online than in face-to-face groups or meetings. If you review Twitter, Facebook and other social media, it is easy to be shocked by the invective and angry comments that are shared in this space.
There is something about the depersonalised nature of the online space that causes this, and which can make people more disinhibited and less empathic to the people they might attack. In controversial experiments in the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram tested how far people would go when ordered to hurt another person. His classic experiment was to recruit a person off the street to act as a “teacher” to another person who was learning a task. The teacher was instructed by a supervisor to administer electric shocks any time the learner made a mistake and to increase the shocks for subsequent mistakes. The learner, who was an actor, would wince in increasing pain on receipt of the shocks. What surprised Milgram and his team was how far people would follow orders in administering the electric shocks despite the obvious suffering of the learner. Some would even knowingly administer a potentially fatal dose.
A side result of the experiment was how the proximity of the teacher to the learner influenced the outcome. People were less likely to harm the learner if they were in the same room or could see them face to face than if they were separated by a screen or further away in another room watching on a screen. Our potential to cause harm to another person is reduced when we see them or have a real world connection with them.
Under the mask of anonymity, and within the social distance that the internet provides, people are more likely to let loose and attack others. Indeed, many perpetrators of bullying set up separate online identities that are distinct from how they might behave in the real world. This is also true for the bystanders and the large audience who witness bullying online. Through the depersonalised space of the internet they are more likely to tolerate bullying and even to revel in it as well as less likely to take action to support someone being attacked unfairly.
People can be ‘groomed’
The specialist nature of some online forums is a further factor in cyberbullying. Whereas in a real world discussion, an extreme view might be held by only one person, in the vastness of the internet it is easy to find a specialised forum that supports that extreme view. In such groups, bullying behaviour can be reinforced and justified as there is no one to present an alternative view. People can be “groomed” and encouraged to hold and express negative views.
To address bullying online, we may need better monitoring and regulation in cyberspace so that offensive or libelous comments are removed faster and posters are held accountable as well as those who share and propagate these comments. Though anathema to the proponents of a free internet, some regulation may be part of the solution and we already see this coming as in the UK with the potential of Twitter account holders being sued for retweeting defamatory information.
In addition, we need better education about respectful and responsible use of the internet. This should start in schools so that children are taught about the harm caused by cyberbullying and to empathise with the victims of such attacks, as well as learning standards for respectful communication online.
Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, February 2013. John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.