Misusing the Internet

Cyber Peace

A Virtual Roundtable

Four Cambridge authors continue their roundtable discussion about cyber psychology by addressing what happens when cyber bullies and online aggressors misuse the powerful tools the web provides.



Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of The Internet

John Suler, the author of The Psychology of the Digital Age

Kent Norman, the author of Cyberpsychology

Raphael Cohen-Almagor, the author of Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side

Online aggression and cyber bullying is becoming more and more of an issue, how can we help control negative outcomes derived from the miss use of the internet?

John Suler: Thanks to the online disinhibition effect, there is a wide range of antisocial behavior – everything from off-putting remarks by friends to cunningly hostile assaults by psychopaths. Even in its beginnings, cyberspace felt like the wild west. People took the law into their own hands as they staked their claim in a weakly regulated territory. Opinionated settlers used it as a soapbox for “free speech.” Sociopaths seized it as their playground.

Given this complexity, we need a variety of strategies to cope with aggression. It will not be easy. Law enforcement professionals try to control blatant crimes. That leaves aggression that is not technically illegal. We could create new laws prohibiting certain types of behavior, like cyberbullying, but that steers us onto the slippery slope of trying to define them in ways that can be enforced.

Education will help. If people understand online aggression, they stand a better chance of coping with it. That education would include practical advice, such as learning to spot trolls (including such tricks as sock-puppets), then simply ignoring them. Education might help people understand how someone’s hostility may not have anything to do with them, but is instead a transference reaction. We might also warn people about the wild west atmosphere that prevails in many areas online: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Or as Paul Vixie said, “The internet is not for sissies.”

Some gaming companies use machine intelligence to control hostility. An algorithm detects inappropriate language then warns, punishes, or bans the player. But this may not work in social media where people do not like machines looking over their shoulders.

We should consider the social problems in the “real” world that cause the frustration and anger people displace into cyberspace. Online hostility is not just about the Internet.

Kent Norman: For the past four years I have been teaching a course on the psychology of social networking and social computing. Each student is required to keep a weekly journal of sessions and activities on social media sites. From these logs, the time and frequency of sites is in this order: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, SnapChat, Email, GroupMe, and YouTube. Interestingly, their activities on these sites are split between academic use (organizing study sessions, group projects, and clubs) and social interactions. While college students often use Facebook for keeping up with friends and family, it seems to be more often used for school organizations, clubs, fraternities, and sororities. These activities are on the positive side!

Also on the positive side, students are aware of the need for social capitol. The more links that they make, the more people that they can call on for references, backup, and favours. Many of the seniors are already on LinkedIn building their networks and promoting their skill sets.

However, on the negative side, some students obsess with keeping up with latest things posted on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and SnapChat. They seem to suffer from the fear of missing out (FOMO). They report checking social the first thing when they get up, multiple times during the day, and the last thing before they turn out the lights.

I think that I am fortunate dealing with college students rather than K-12. By college, most have learned how to navigate through social media and use it to their advantage by amplifying its positive benefits and minimizing the negative.

Raphael Cohen-Almagor: There are moral, social and legal means to fight against these challenges. Most of us are rational beings who are able to apply reason, assess alternatives, consider the merit of different modes of activities. People understand that their conduct has consequences. Responsible people need to evaluate the likely consequences of whatever mode of conduct they choose. And most of us operate within the realm of the law. Most of us are law-abiding citizens.

Education is a key tool. We need to invest in communication, and in education. With awareness to the imperative of responsibility that is the duty of each and every one of us, whether we are Netusers who upload information to the Web, or readers of Net material, or Internet Service Providers (ISPs), government officials, or people who are operating in the international arena, we all need to weigh freedom of expression, on the one hand, and social responsibility, on the other. With combined effort of all stake-holders it is possible to promote awareness that some things are simply not to be done.

Cyberbullying is a growing concern because it is easy, cheap, instantaneous and has a certain utility for the bully. The bully is able to hide his or her identity, the IP address of the computer, and vent hostilities continuously. Only combined efforts of all can potentially redeem this growing and most troubling phenomenon that sometimes results in suicide. Cyberbullying should be fought at school and at home by Netusers, by readers, by the ISPs, by the state, and by the international community at large. As ISPs are the gatekeepers, they need to be proactive far more than they are now. ISPs should fight against cyberbullying as stringently as they fight against copy-tight abusers. Cyberbullying is more important as human lives are at stake.

Patricia Wallace: Cyberbullying differs from face-to-face bullying in several ways, and strategies for reducing this behavior and controlling negative outcomes have to take into account the nature of cyberspace. Unlike the playground bullies who taunt and tease their victims in person, cyberbullies can torment victims 24 by 7, and they can spread the victimization to a much wider audience through Twitter and other social media. In extreme cases, the victim’s suffering goes viral, and the material the cyberbully posted remains online for years – potentially forever – so the pain is renewed again and again as new people discover it. This is what happened to the “Star Wars Kid,” whose classmates posted a video he made of himself brandishing a light saber and pretending to be a Jedi knight. The boy suffered years of harassment and even death threats, and he eventually quit school and sought psychiatric help for depression. At the time, neither the police nor the school administrators were able to do anything about it.

What can parents and educators do to protect youth from cyberbullying, and prevent them from becoming cyberbullies themselves? Research points to the importance of the three “E’s”:

  • Education
  • Empathy
  • Eye contact

Cyberbullies can’t see their victims’ faces when they read a hateful text message or learn that an embarrassing photo became public. But education that makes a victim’s emotions much more salient, through eye contact, for example, can promote empathy. Such experiences can have a powerful effect on young people, and such empathy lessons may even lead them to stand up for the next victim. It’s important to combat the kind of toxic disinhibition that the Internet can foster in some people, and emphasizing the old netiquette rule – “remember the human” – is one way to start.

Read the rest of this 6-part Roundtable Discussion:

Part One: Cyberpsychology
Part Two: Misusing the Internet
Part Three: When Kids Go Online
Part Four: The Future of Online Relationships
Part Five: The single most important issue in cyber psychology today
Part Six: The Future of the Internet

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