A recent study published in PLOS ONE reveals some of the reasons why cyberbullying among young adults is so prevalent. The study identifies three key factors that contribute to online behaviors that demean and harm others:
- A pursuit of online popularity
- Limited empathy
“We expected that low self-esteem and online disinhibition (saying or doing things online that you would not typically say or do during face-to-face interactions) would be associated with online antisocial behavior,” said Felipe Soares, the lead author of the paper and a Senior Lecturer in Communications and Media at the London College of Communication, University of the Arts London. “In addition to these two factors, we also expected that other motivations for cyber-aggression would play an important role, particularly rage and revenge.”
However, contrary to previous research linking cyberbullying to factors such as low self-esteem, the perceived anonymity of the online world, anger, and a desire for revenge, Soares’s study involving 359 Canadian young adults revealed distinct motivations for cyberbullying — primarily driven by what researchers have termed ‘recreation’ and ‘reward.’
“Recreation pertains to impulsive antisocial acts, whereas reward relates to more calculated and premeditated acts that may evolve over time,” said Soares. “Young individuals who partake in antisocial behavior online may be driven by a desire for excitement and the pursuit of positive emotions or social status among their peers.”
The study also found another reason why cyberbullying is so common among young adults – a lack of cognitive empathy.
Based on the participants’ responses, researchers have suggested that young adults who engage in antisocial behaviors online are often unable to empathize with the emotions of others, particularly their victims.
“What this association means is that perpetrators may be engaging in online antisocial behavior because they do not fully understand how their targets feel,” explained Soares.
The findings of this study provide valuable insights that can inform and guide policymakers, governments, parents, social media companies, and mental health professionals in their ongoing efforts to foster inclusive and supportive online environments for all individuals.
Here are some ways we can make social media a safer place for all of us to voice our opinions, comments, and thoughts:
- Create friction prior to posting. “Previous studies showed that making social media users think about the content they are about to post can be effective in increasing their awareness and building empathy towards the target. An experiment on Twitter showed that asking people to review their message before posting something offensive made many users rewrite their messages in a more polite way or prevented them from posting it,” said Soares.
- Use advanced machine learning to flag inappropriate comments or posts. As the capabilities of AI-based language models continue to advance, social media companies have an opportunity to curb online antisocial behavior by identifying potentially toxic posts or making their users think about what they are about to post. That said, implementing such measures can be complex.
- Devise psychological interventions that increase cognitive empathy. It is important to build awareness among young adults who engage in online antisocial behavior about the negative consequences their actions can have on their victims.
Cyberbullying is a widespread problem that needs to be addressed to improve the health and safety of our society. The first step toward addressing the issue is to understand what motivates young adults to engage in online behaviors that cause harm or hurt to others. The science is catching up, and it is time for us to put the knowledge to the test and find new ways to reward healthy online behaviors while discouraging antisocial behaviors.
A full interview with Felipe Soares discussing his new research on cyberbullying can be found here: Why do some young adults turn into cyberbullies?
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