This is a much shortened, adapted extract from the section on online cruelty and cyber-bullying in The Teenage Guide to Friends, adapted and reproduced here by permission of Walker Books. Please remember that I have missed lots of detail out. For the full discussion, do take a look at the book!
Online cruelty and cyber-bullying
Being online can make some people behave incredibly cruelly and thoughtlessly.
There are several main reasons for this:
- Making comments online is so easy. People can fire off an insult in a couple of seconds and get straight back to what they’re doing. It’s as though there are no consequences. If they made that same comment to someone’s face, they’d have to continue the discussion; online, they can just forget it.
- There is no eye contact or visual clue to show that the victim has been affected. So a cruel person can be tempted just to say more and more with no consequences. This is part of what scientists call “the online disinhibition effect” – the fact that people of all ages are less inhibited or careful online.
- Being anonymous gives a bully extra confidence. (Actually, it’s very hard to be truly anonymous and there are many ways for them to be discovered.)
- Cruelty and anger are natural traits – which doesn’t mean they are “right”. (Actually, often anger is right: if someone treats you badly, it’s justifiable to feel angry.) I think the internet allows us to be uncontrolled, because it’s so easy to fire off a quick response, and hard to take the comment back. If someone gets pleasure from hurting others or has problems with anger management, the internet makes it horribly easy for them to act this out.
- Many people are poor at thinking ahead to consequences; some are more impulsive than others, finding it harder to control their desire to do something. The part of the brain we need for this – the prefrontal cortex – doesn’t finish developing until well into the 20s. So teenagers may find it harder to think. “Hmm, if I do that, X might happen and I don’t want that.” (You’ll find explanations of teenage brain development in Blame My Brain.)
- There’s often “group behaviour” when it comes to internet bullying or online nastiness. If your group is being unpleasant to someone, it can be hard to stand up and say, “This isn’t OK.” Sometimes, people go along with online bullying simply because their friends are doing it. (See this earlier extract.)
- Although many teenagers are very caring, on average teenagers (especially younger ones) struggle more than other age groups with empathy, the ability to understand what someone else is feeling.
Some things to think about
Obviously, I didn’t grow up with the internet and obviously I’m not a teenager. But I understand how people at different stages of life behave and interact. I also spend a lot of time online, engaging with people on social media. Some of them are strangers, because being an author nowadays involves communicating with a lot of people I’ll never meet; but I have many friends online, too, including some I’ve never met. So, what follows are some thoughts based on all that.
- Do you find that social media helps you with your friendships or not? Perhaps you can think of some ways or occasions when it has helped and some when it has been damaging?
- Do you have friends who seem to behave differently on social media compared to real life?
- Have you ever said anything online that you wished you hadn’t said? Can you use the memory to help you avoid something similar again?
- Have you or your friends had a major problem online? What did you learn from it?
- “Think before you type and pause before you send” is a good motto. Typing an angry response is often tempting, but the internet gives us a big advantage: we can take time to think about the best response.
- Do you get stressed by confrontation in real life? If so, avoid it online. Online arguments can leave you feeling extremely distressed, losing sleep and spending hours thinking about how annoyed you are. Walk away before it starts!
- Treasure positive friendships with people who make you feel good. A few of those are worth far more than 50 contacts you don’t really care about.
- Avoid posting when feeling emotional. Wait till you’re calmer and in control. If you need to talk now, do so privately, with someone you really trust.
- Anything you put online will stick around forever, so make sure you won’t regret that embarrassing photo, status or message in a few years’ time!
- Lots of people aren’t good at noticing the tone of their messages. They might sound abrupt or sarcastic without meaning to. Misunderstandings easily arise like that. If you’re not sure what someone meant, check. Don’t assume.
Used well, social media is a wonderful source of friendship and opportunity but it also brings risks and they are not just the obvious ones that adults think of. People can behave badly online and it’s easier to do so than it is offline. Avoid the pitfalls and keep in control of your online life.
You’ll find much more about this in the resources for LIFE ONLINE.