Parents know that their children shouldn’t be communicating with strangers over the Internet, but new research is finding that communicating with peers can be risky as well. That’s right. All that social networking technology has the capability to increase antisocial behavior.
In line with national findings, a recent study of youth in Pullman found that nearly 20 percent of middle school-age children report they have either been the victim of or a participant in some type of Internet aggression. WSU researchers Nicole Werner and Matthew Bumpus, colleagues in the department of human development, set out to figure out what was behind that statistic.
“That term ‘cyber-bully’ gets thrown around a lot in the media,” Bumpus said, “but we don’t really know much about the characteristics of these kids.”
Do they vary by age or gender? Are the same kids who are bullies on the playground also bullies in cyberspace? What are the attitudes or behaviors that seem to put kids at greater risk to be involved in Internet aggression?
Online time a factor
In an article under review for the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, Werner and Bumpus analyzed data collected from more than 300 sixth- and seventh-grade students over a two-year period. The data is part of a larger longitudinal study on school climate and child adjustment.
In looking specifically at the data involving computer-mediated communication, one intriguing finding was that boys and girls reported being involved in Internet aggression in about the same numbers. And the rate did not vary by grade level.
One factor that did significantly impact rates of Internet aggression was how much time students spent using computer-mediated communication devices such as text messaging, instant messaging or e-mail. The more time kids spent communicating via a computer, the more likely they were to be a participant in or a victim of Internet aggression.
Bullies branch out
Some researchers — and pop psychologists — have hypothesized that people who engage in Internet aggression might be those who lack strength or stature in face-to-face encounters and have been victimized by their peers. That wasn’t borne out by the research.
According to Werner, it appears instead that the kids who bully in cyberspace also bully peers in traditional contexts, such as school. This research also showed that students who were themselves victims of Internet aggression were more likely to become online aggressors.
Internet aggression, Werner said, seems to be most closely connected to relational aggression in traditional peer contexts. For instance, adolescents who use exclusion, or threats of exclusion, to manipulate a relationship are more likely to engage in aggressive behaviors online.
“The raw material for relational aggression appears to be heightened with online tools such as instant messaging and social networking sites,” said Werner. Users can manipulate text as well as photos, and then distribute that information to a number of other people behind a shield of partial or complete anonymity.
“Nobody knows what is real,” she said.
While Internet aggression appears to affect a minority of students, researchers still are working to determine its effects on the kids who do experience it. Nonetheless, Werner says, “I firmly believe that parents need to tightly monitor children’s use of online communication tools during the elementary school years.”
Soloing in cyberspace tied to poor behaviors
Children left to navigate cyberspace on their own with few parental rules seem to exhibit more anxiety, more depression and less prosocial behavior.
“Maternal Rule-Setting for Children’s Internet Use,” a paper by Matthew Bumpus and Nicole Werner, assistant professors in the department of human development, will be published this spring in the journal Marriage and Family Review.
“We can’t conclude that it is the unsupervised Internet use that is causing those problems,” Bumpus said. “This study is a first step.”
But, he said, it is clear from the evidence that unsupervised use of text messaging, e-mails, chat rooms, instant messaging and other forms of computer-mediated communication are risky.
In the study, which drew data from a larger longitudinal study of family relationships and children’s social adjustment, Bumpus and Werner concluded that the most effective method of monitoring Internet use was to create rules that were technology-specific, such as the use of filtering software, restricting e-mail use to a “safe” list, or prohibiting instant messaging.
While many parents have rules about time spent watching television or playing video games, and rules about which games or programs are allowed, those rules governing “traditional” media may not be sufficient for Internet use.
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