What are we really seeing in the social media fishbowl?

Apologies in advance for a slightly parasitic blog post, but this thoughtful piece by Prof. Justin Patchin of the Cyberbullying Research Center – “Bullies or Best Friends? The Challenge of Interpreting Interpersonal Relationships” – raises some important questions for parents and school staff as well as researchers to consider, and I’d like to help get more discussion going. Here are some possible talking points:

  • Who’s the adult here? In an intriguing way, Justin illustrates an important point about how the behavior of a bunch of adults in a classic “real world” situation is really not that different from what goes on among teenaged friends hanging out in digital spaces. How much do we think about that when we observe teen group dynamics online?
  • “Best friends or worst enemies?” Whether it’s a group of adults or kids, offline or online, it’s often really hard to tell if the ribbing’s mean or just in fun – even when you’re a participant, much less someone on the outside looking in. Are observers honest with themselves about how little context they have? It’s hard to tell…
  • Where the line is drawn. “Most of the comments were accompanied by laughter by many in the group, including the one being roasted, which may have masked the maliciousness,” Justin writes, referring to that real-world experience. “We’ve learned through our conversations with teens who bully that a lot of bullying behaviors are done by young people who think they are just joking around.” Maybe by a lot of adults, too – some of whom, young or old, could be socially challenged or disabled. And young people, by definition, are figuring all that out as they go. Can we give them a chance to do that?
  • That definition problem again. Justin writes, “I don’t believe that bullying can be done unintentionally. Even though someone’s feelings can certainly be hurt without intent. Bullying by definition is deliberate.” Do parents and school staff think about that enough? Sometimes hurtful remarks, whether made online or offline, are mistakes, sometimes insensitivity, sometimes made in a fit of anger and of course sometimes meant as a joke. None of that is bullying or cyberbullying. That doesn’t mean that it’s ok, that it doesn’t call for an apology or shouldn’t be made right, but it’s not bullying and should be addressed with communication first, not punishment. (I’m not speaking for Justin, of course. This is my view.)
  • The social media fishbowl. Now that group dynamics play out so publicly in social media, they get more scrutiny and judgment than ever. But how much can we observers – those of us with no context on those dynamics, such as parents or school administrators watching from outside the fishbowl – know what the intention or impact of the behavior we see is? How much do we factor our lack of context into our investigations and conclusions when the dynamics seem negative or harmful?

It’s time for the public discussion about online social dynamics to get less reactive and more thoughtful. It would be very helpful, to observers as well as participants, to take what we see in social media with a grain of salt. Snap judgments from context-challenged observers are not only not helpful, they can create problems and increase harm. Respectful, open-minded communication is needed in our responses, seeking participants’ perspectives on what was going on before any conclusions are reached or actions taken.

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