The anonymity factor

By Anne Collier

A sidebar to the first and second parts to what has turned out to be a series on digital bullying & self-harm:

Although anonymity has long been a source of safety, especially in political and human rights situations, it has been cited largely as a source of danger where teens and social media are concerned., a social media that allows anonymous posting, figured prominently in early coverage of UK teen Hannah Smith’s suicide, and US teen Hannah Anderson was using the site to answer questions about her ordeal just two days after being rescued, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

John LeBlanc, MD, author of a study about cyberbullying and suicide wrote that allowing anonymity “may encourage cyberbullying. It is difficult to prove a cause and effect relationship, but I believe there is little justification for anonymity.”

So we need to know more about the anonymity factor, but here are some things we do know already:

  • About 10% of teens engage in anonymous self-harassment. That’s a finding in a 2011-’12 study by psychologist Elizabeth Englander at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Research Center. It’s an average, because she found a higher proportion of boys (13%) than girls (8%) engaging in it. “About half of these “digital self-harmers” had done this only once or very infrequently; the other half reported that they had cyberbullied themselves more regularly or had one, ongoing episode which lasted at least several months.”
  • Anonymous cruelty offline too: Technology is “not uniquely capable of enabling anonymous bullying; school environments can do so as well,” Harvard’s Berkman Center reported in its comprehensive review of the bullying research last year. “In a national survey of over 1,000 12-17-year-olds, 12% who reported being bullied at school said they did not ‘know’ their bully, as did 22% of those who report being bullied on the way to and from school.”
  • Anonymity not that prevalent in cyberbullying. The Berkman lit  review also referred to a survey of more than 1,400 12-to-17-year-olds showing that “73% of participants who were victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bully.” The context of what happens between people online is not really a Web site or app; it is everyday life – for young people, what’s going on socially at school.
  • Anonymity decreases as kids age up. Another study by Dr. Englander found that, in 3rd grade, 72% of cyberbullying victims said they didn’t know who the bully was, but the percentage went down to 64% by 5th grade, a trend that “continues through high school.”

Young people aren’t using anonymity only for harm. They do their social and identity development work in social media as well as in offline life now, and they find safety in anonymity when they do (just as we did as teens, using other media and spaces). It’s good for adults to know that so they can help their children and students see that, by inviting comments or sharing struggles in public spaces online, they could be inviting cruelty as well as the constructive feedback they’re probably seeking.

“When teens are specifically taught that there are certain aspects of life that are better dealt with face to face – whether it’s asking someone out on a date or seeking help … after a traumatic experience – they are receptive to it,” the Christian Science Monitor cites Elizabeth Englander as saying.

Related links