Is cyberbullying all that goes ‘over the line’ when kids are online?



In a TED talk this past spring, watched by over six million viewers, Monica Lewinsky called herself “Patient Zero” of cyber-fueled bullying and shaming.

When this “scandal” unfolded, the concept of internet-enabled public shaming was relatively unprecedented. And Lewinsky’s case certainly brought the epidemic threat of digital social networks into public consciousness.

Today, those born in 1998, the year that the world learned of Lewinsky and Bill Clinton’s affair, are in their teen years. And for them, the concept of internet-induced shaming is hardly new.

Today’s kids are connected to, through and within the digital world as never before – 88% of American teens aged 13-17 have access to a mobile phone and 73% have access to smartphones. About 92% are on the internet every day. This means that adolescents have unprecedented opportunities to create, connect and investigate digital social media.

As researchers at Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE), we study teens\’ experiences with technology and social media. In a recent project, we studied the digital stresses that teenagers are facing today. Recently we looked at stories that had been posted by adolescents to MTV’s online forum, “Over the Line?” between 2010 and 2013.

And as our own research also shows, kids today face a variety of digital stressors – from negotiating how much communication to have with close friends to managing challenges like public shaming.

The new digital stressors

Over the Line? is an online forum for youth that was launched in 2010. It was designed to exchange experiences and advice regarding digital abuse. According to users\’ self-reports, a “typical” poster on the site is 15 years old and female.

By 2013 – the time when we began the project – the site contained over 7,000 stories. Of these, we selected a systematic random sample of 2,000 stories to analyze for our study.

Researchers studying youths\’ personal experiences often face several barriers. These include finding young people who are willing and able to openly share personal experiences. We were fortunate to discover (and to be given access to) the authentic repository of stories posted to “Over the Line?”

This material was particularly valuable since teens wrote about their experiences as they actively dealt with the issues.

Through teens’ stories, we identified six distinct digital stress experiences.

Teens describe receiving mean and harassing personal attacks, which come directly to them through texts or direct digital messages. They also describe public shaming and humiliation; in contrast to direct messages, public shaming happens in front of a digitally enabled audience.

Public shaming can take the form of gossip or text-based messages that someone posts about another person, or may involve mass distribution of embarrassing pictures (think everything from unflattering images to revealing “nudies”).

That’s not all. We found a collection of accounts of impersonation – that is, someone else posting hurtful, embarrassing or slanderous information while pretending to be that person. This was described in teens’ stories as either through accessing and sending messages from his or her personal account or by creating a new, fake account.

These three stressors – personal attacks, public shaming, and impersonation – all represent issues generally fueled by varying degrees of hostile intentions. At times, they are akin to cyberbullying; at times they more closely resemble heightened cases of “digital drama.\”

All of these issues are related to some kind of relational conflict or hostility. Some have a clear victim, while others reflect more “mundane” conflict; some may not even show a clear distinction between victims and perpetrator; and some could just be cases of “serious meanness” versus “just kidding.”

Another set of issues

Other than these, teens’ stories also described digital stressors of a different kind: challenges that arise while navigating close relationships in today’s digital ecology.

For instance, when it is the sheer quantity of messages facilitated by digital communication that becomes burdensome – rather than the content – teens indicate feeling smothered by digital communication.

There is also another kind of issue that emerges from crossing boundaries and violating norms.

Giving in to curiosity to read or access private traces of digital communication with others leads to a breach of trust. And that frequently produces information that poses issues for both the “spy” and the “spied upon.”

For example, a teen may be tempted to glance through a friend’s text messages when the friend’s phone is left out on a table. How does she respond when she finds that her friend has been texting unfavorably about her with a boy on whom she has a crush?

Also, teens share accounts of feeling a pressure to comply with requests for access to sensitive content such as nude photographs. The pressure is particularly acute when the requests come from the target of a teen’s affection. Sending nude pictures seems to offer a powerful currency, often a strong signal of trust and attraction.

These latter three stressors – feeling smothered, breaking and entering, and pressure to comply – in many ways align with and echo broader public debates about the boundaries, norms and nature of digital privacy.

Forming a community of support

We were also interested in understanding the (anonymous) advice these young personal account posters were receiving on how to deal with digital stressors.

So approximately one year after we began our original analysis of teens’ posts to “Over the Line?,” we conducted a second analysis of teens’ posts.

This time we focused on the specific comments and advice anonymously offered by peers in response to personal accounts of digital stress. We culled a sample of 628 comments posted in response to 180 stories of digital stress (30 stories for each of the original six digital stressors.

We found several recommendations came up regularly: get help from others (especially adults in positions of authority); communicate directly with the person involved in the situation; cut ties (ie, end the friendship or, if it is a significant other, break up); try to ignore or avoid the situation; and utilize digital solutions, such as block, un-friend or alter privacy settings.

Seeking outside help, particularly from adults and authority figures, was one of the most common recommendations when it came to issues of public shaming as well as for impersonation and mean personal attacks.

However, in cases of impersonation, “utilizing digital solutions” was also considered a practical response. This might entail, for example, reporting the account as fake so that it could be taken down or blocking the account.

For mean personal attacks, the most popular advice – other than to get help – was to simply try to ignore or avoid it.

However, getting help was the least common recommendation for digital stressors regarding the conflicts endemic to intimate relationships. Teens most often recommended that their peers deal with this genre of issues by simply cutting ties and breaking off the friendship or relationship.

These descriptive findings raised several questions for us about the efficacy of the recommended strategies.

For a teen coping with public shaming, it’s likely a good thing that their peers recommend help from adults, assuming the adults know how to help.

At the same time, imagine turning to a friend to complain about receiving too many messages from a significant other and receiving the advice to simply ditch him or her. And “ignore it” is easy advice to give but may be quite difficult to apply toward someone who cares about you.

Making sense of their stories

We set out to study teens’ stories because we wanted to understand what social challenges they face in their digital lives. In the process, we were reminded that it is not just researchers who are trying to make sense of teens’ experiences.

Teens, too, are actively defining their own norms, drawing their own “lines,” and doing their best to navigate all from the best and to the hardest aspects of their social relationships in a digitally connected context.

The outpouring of queries and of generally well-intentioned (if not always effective) advice reminds us that teens crave various forums, safe places, where they can talk with one another about their experiences and offer support.

So, are social media good or bad for teens? Is “digital stress” a reason for hand-wringing?

We think these questions are beside the point. We know that a tool can be a weapon, and a weapon can be a tool. We need to continue to figure out how we can amplify teens’ good intentions and desires as they tweet, post, “like,” comment, text, and share.

And, if we pay attention to the ways new media at times complicate or generate “digital stress” – not for the purpose of imposing restrictions, but in order to offer meaningful support – we can continue to help teens wield their tools adeptly.

Author Bio:Emily C Weinstein is a Doctoral Student, Harvard University and Robert L Selman is a Professor of Human Development and Education and Professor of Psychology in Psychiatry, Harvard University