Cyberbullying by text

The increasing use of new social media is changing the way children’s social skills develop. As social interaction drives the development of empathy how is the use of social media affecting a generation hooked on instant messaging, Facebook and YouTube?

Children learn about the emotions of others by watching them and in particular, they learn how their own behaviour affects others by seeing their reactions. As Marsha Levy-Warren writes: ‘It is hard to feel what someone else feels – that is, be empathetic – if you cannot see or hear his or her response to what you have said or done.’ In this particular piece, Marsha writes about 14-year-old Gabrielle who has assumed the identity of another school girl, Renee, and sent defamatory messages. Within days Renee is infamous throughout the school – and beyond.

From Marsha’s clear and penetrating account, it is clear that although Gabrielle immediately accepts that what she did was wrong – she doesn’t really understand why. It takes Marsha, as her therapist, some time to help Gabrielle comprehend the effect this has had on Renee. So, does a lack of empathy lead to cyber-bullying – or does using social media in itself tend to reduce empathy? Probably both.

Robert Slonje, Peter Smith and Ann Frisén compared ‘traditional’ and cyber-bullying among 759 Swedish schoolchildren. They found that 11% of the children had been cyber-bullied within the previous 3 months, mainly by instant messaging: 16% had been bullied the old-fashioned way. They wanted to know whether the remorse bullying children felt depended on the kind of bullying. While girls generally felt more remorse than boys, 70% felt remorse for traditional bullying while only 58% felt any remorse for cyber-bullying. Moreover, those children who had used both methods, showed more remorse for traditional bullying.

Slonje et al also point out that a single instance of cyber-bullying can become a serious case of repetitive bullying as the message, image or video is forwarded – 16% of cyber-bullies uploaded the content onto the internet. Investigating why people generally press ‘forward’, Jinsong Huang, Rong Chen and Kia Wang sent a short, funny video clip to 210 Chinese undergraduates to find out which factors influenced them in forwarding the clip. They found empathy to have a strong influence on controlling the decision to forward or not.

Marsha advocates teaching young people to pause over the ‘send’ button – to consider how the recipient might feel when they get their message. How best can we teach them to do this when many adults either don’t understand social media well enough or use it carelessly themselves? There has been a lot of debate over using social media in schools. My own daughter has just started using a school version of social media which has a whistle-blowing button to alert the teacher to unsavoury content. I think the case for social media in schools is overwhelming: ‘social media is not going away’. What isn’t entirely clear yet is whether schools can effectively teach children to use social media responsibly – so that they continue to think about the consequences of their actions when there is no longer a whistle-blowing button.

About the Author

Gillian Ragsdale

Gillian Ragsdale, Ph.D. is an Associate Lecturer in biological psychology with the Open University, in the U.K.

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