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Machines Like Us

Mapping our online communications

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Social networking. Image credit

When we typically think of kids who are the victims of school bullying, what comes to mind are isolated youth who do not fit in. A new study, however, shows that when that harassment occurs online, the victims tend to be in mainstream social groups at the school – and they are often friends or former friends, not strangers.

The research is part of a burgeoning field of study into the effects of social media on everyday relationships and behavior. Personality and social psychologists are finding surprising ways in which people's online environments and relationships reflect and influence their real-world ones, as presented today at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) annual meeting today in New Orleans.

"Researchers have known for a while that individuals give unique cues about who they are with the things they own, clothes they wear, things they say and do. However, though these cues are informative to knowing who someone truly is, they were not always so easily accessible to our entire social network," says Lindsay Graham of the University of Texas, Austin, one of today's presenters. "Now with much of our lives being lived online, and the boundaries having been blurred between who sees these cues and who doesn't, it is all the more important to pay attention to the kinds of impressions we are giving off to those around us."

The emerging image of the cyber-bully

Some statistics indicate that as many as 160,000 students a year skip school just to avoid being harassed, and texting and social media are making it easier than ever to harass classmates. Victimization from schoolmates has been correlated with everything from depression and anxiety to thoughts of suicide and struggles with academics.

To study so-called "cyber-aggression" – harassment that occurs online – Diane Felmlee of the Pennsylvania State University and Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis, studied 788 students at a preparatory school in Long Island. They mapped the students' social network structure relative to online harassment: asking students to name their close friends, which schoolmates they have picked on or been mean to, and which schoolmates had picked on them.

What they found was that cyber-aggression occurs in the mainstream of the school and largely among friends, former friends, and former dating partners. They also found that non-heterosexual students were more likely to be the victims. Examples of the types of harassment found online were posting humiliating photos, texting vicious rumors, posting that a student is gay and making fun of him, and pretending to befriend a lonely person.

"Cyber-aggression occurred most often among relatively popular young people, rather than among those on the fringes of the school hierarchy," Felmlee says. "Those engaging in cyber-aggression also were unlikely to target strangers but often were in close relationships with their victims at one point in time, close enough to know how to harm them."

The researchers found that some of the processes that contribute to aggression in school include jockeying for status, enforcing norms of conformity, and competing for girlfriends or boyfriends.