Volume 29, Number 5
Five Things Teachers Should Tell Students About Socializing Online
Hannah was a fresh-faced 14-year-old, with strikingly pretty reddish-blond hair and an age-appropriate penchant for slightly risky apps and websites. She had an account on Ask.fm, a site where teens pose anonymous questions to their peers. Such anonymity is disinhibiting, and it’s not unusual for the conversations to disintegrate into cruelty.
Hannah probably knew that putting her profile on a site that invited anonymous questions could lead to meanness; but when I surveyed 453 teens to ask why they participated in such websites, their most often cited motive was the concern that they might “miss something” if they didn’t participate. Perhaps Hannah’s anxiety about being left out was the catalyst for her involvement; and when she ultimately took her own life, leaving a numbingly sad note about cyberbullying she had endured, the United Kingdom mourned. But the grief became compounded by utter mystification when Ask.fm reported that almost all of the “cyberbullying” had actually come from her own computer—that is, from herself. Hannah had, apparently, self-cyberbullied.
Cases like Hannah’s present adults with bizarre new problems that we couldn’t have even imagined. The list of cyber-issues that we need to discuss with kids seems to grow slowly but steadily—adult predators; nude pictures; cyberbullying; texting while driving; unauthorized picture-taking; and now, self-cyberbullying? The agenda is a veritable glacier, gradually increasing and noticeably carving its way deeper and deeper through our landscape. At best, cyber-education risks becoming an overwhelming task; at worst, its magnitude invites complete surrender and denial.
But despite the scale of the task, most of the educators I work with know that parents’ reasonably commonplace difficulty in coping with cyber-issues means schools are going to have to lead the way in cyber-education. The trick will be first, to weed apart the incredibly-sad-but-rare phenomena from the more typical problems, and second, to focus on the common errors that are made by students (and adults) due to the unique nature of the online world.
More unusual behaviors like self-cyberbullying may feel more critical (partly because of their exposure in the media, partly because of the association with suicide in media stories), but they appear to be more closely associated with less common issues that compound the impact of digital communications, such as psychological and emotional problems. In contrast, common errors online (such as assuming no one will see something you’ve sent or posted) are more likely to be associated with a set of perceptual errors that characterize digital environments. In other words, the rarer types of cyber-problems appear to be associated with the user’s characteristics; but the more common types may more often be linked with the unique way that digital devices and electronic communications make people think and feel.
The good news is that we can get a lot of mileage from teaching children about some of the more general principles of digital usage that apply to all (or most) acts of message-sending and picture-taking, as well as to apps and websites. Below are five principles that everyone should understand about the ways that communications can change in digital environments. These principles apply in digital environments, no matter what.
Principle #1: Communicating online is different than talking to someone face-to-face.
Our brains have evolved and adapted for face-to-face communications. When you and I are talking to each other in person, the focus is on our connection, even when the topic is about other people. What is said feels private, and intimate. Even when the topic isn’t a particularly private one, we don’t always want it to spread around, and we usually assume it won’t be. “I can’t believe that sweater she’s wearing—what a rag,” says Girl A to Girl B. She’s sharing an opinion. She doesn’t want the sweater-wearer to hear her or to know what she’s saying, and she doesn’t want everyone else to hear her being snippy. She’s just trying to build up her connection with Girl B. Neither of them think of themselves as bullies.
In a digital environment, though, the perceptions shift, and the sender may be more focused on generating some attention for herself, and may fail to appropriately focus on the connection with her friend, or on how the gossip could affect the subject of it. The lack of a real in-person encounter may turn a connection-building comment into a piece of gossip; just something to pass on to others. The technology makes it so easy, too. Face to face, there is no larger audience (most of the time). But in a digital environment, it’s easy for the sender to forget about the larger audience, even when the recipient doesn’t.
The lesson for students? Remember that anything you send or post electronically may not stay between the two of you. In trusted relationships, state explicitly when you want something not to be repeated, and don’t assume that your friend will always just “know” this.
Principle #2: Talking digitally can make you feel uninhibited and lead you to say things you might not say anywhere else.
To understand social cruelty, you need to also understand what prevents social cruelty. In any adolescent context, callousness can seem cool. But when they’re facing their target, for many kids, it can be hard to disregard the hurt they see on their peers’ faces. In a digital environment, though, without the facial and contextual cues around you, a certain disinhibition kicks in, and you’re likely to say or do things that you would never do in person. While this isn’t a universal change—there are clearly people who remain untroubled (or are even exhilarated) by the hurt on someone’s face—it is true that many who would not hurt others in person will do so online. Thus, the proliferation of digital communications increases the window of opportunity for social cruelty to occur. Understanding that a digital environment lacks those social cues—and considering how, without them, people are more disinhibited about being cruel—can conversely help reduce cyber-problems.
The lesson for students? When you’re texting, posting, or interacting online, think about how what you do comes off to the subject. Understand that online situations can lead people who aren’t normally cruel to say or do cruel things. Don’t just consider how you’re looking to others, but also consider how others (not to mention your parents and potential employers) will feel about reading or seeing what you’re up to. Then take what you think the impact will be, and double it.
Principle #3: Texting or posting back and forth about a feeling can cause that feeling to escalate and can make the situation worse.
There’s a cognitive effect in psychology known as “priming.” It’s not well known, however, partly because until recently it wasn’t very relevant to everyday life. In a nutshell, cognitive priming occurs when you expose yourself to a feeling by reading about it repeatedly, which in turn can cause the feeling to artificially escalate or expand.
For example, if you’re slightly annoyed with someone and text friends about it (perhaps for venting, or emotional support), the act of writing and reading repeatedly about your feelings can cause these feelings to become more intense. Even if you’re only annoyed when you begin, you may feel decidedly angry by the time you’re done. I was able to replicate this effect in the lab through an experiment where I showed random subjects text messages either once, or five times, about an identical situation, then asked them to rate their annoyance. Those who read more messages were significantly more annoyed. The problem with this effect is that in real life, kids who find their emotions escalating aren’t likely to blame their digital activities; instead, they fix the blame on the source of their bad feelings (e.g., the person they’re annoyed with). The only way to combat this effect is to make people aware that going repetitively digital when they’re feeling something can make the feeling more intense.
The lesson for students? Be aware that doing a lot of texting or posting when you’re angry, upset, or annoyed can make you feel worse—not better—and might escalate the problematic situation. When you’re feeling this way, it’ll probably work better to talk with someone face-to-face instead.
Principle #4: Be aware of your surroundings when you are online.
Your physical environment (location, size of screen) can trick your brain into feeling like a communication is private, even when you know it isn’t.
Most kids we work with are very much aware of the issue of privacy online, although they often don’t understand why such a fuss is made about it. Having said that, many kids (and adults) aren’t aware of the effect their physical environment has on their perceptions of privacy. It’s interesting to see that in a physically private space—like a bedroom—kids are more likely to make the “no one else will see it” error. In a study I'm currently conducting, about half of the teens who said they had sent or posted something they regretted said they did so while in their bedrooms—and 83 percent said it happened from a room inside their home. About two-thirds said they were using a device with a small screen—which can also promote a false feeling of privacy, since the screen size means that others can’t easily read over your shoulder.
Of course, the device you use, and the physical space you’re in when you send or post, really has no impact on the likelihood that what you’ve sent will or won’t be shared with others. But these environmental factors can trick you into feeling
that something will remain private.
The lesson for students? Be aware that the physical space you’re in can influence your common sense. Remind yourself that regardless of where you are and what device you use, posting or sending anything can be shared.
Principle #5: Anyone can be a victim online.
Online, power can shift quickly. In person, social power and popularity tend to be stable characteristics. In a society (like in a school community), people tend not to jump up or down the ladder constantly. But online, the power structure can be much more volatile. A popular student in school can easily find herself powerless against a continual bully online, and a student who has little status at school can find a much more powerful voice in a digital environment.
This fact often takes students by surprise. Popular students may regard themselves as invulnerable online, and so are willing to expose themselves more. Finding that someone has the nerve to attack them may come as a shock. Likewise, it’s not unusual for online users to find that, whatever their social power in school (or lack of it), they can’t control something they’ve started online. Another user always has the power to pick up the ball and run with it, in a digital environment.
The lesson for students? Digital environments have a power system that’s all their own. No matter who you are, you cannot control the digital actions of others, and they will often not adhere to the social system you’re used to in person. Always remember that anything you post or send can quickly get out of your control.
Discussing these five principles won’t make all your students invulnerable to cyberbullying, and it won’t make everyone behave themselves. But it will start them on the road to a more thoughtful and intelligent use of digital technology. Since they will be using it their entire lives, in multiple venues and with people both reasonable and irrational, having these skills is likely to put them ahead of the pack.
Elizabeth Kandel Englander is a professor of psychology and the founder and director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, which delivers anti-violence and anti-bullying programs, resources, and research for the state of Massachusetts. She is the author of Bullying and Cyberbulling: What Every Educator Needs to Know (Harvard Education Press, 2013).