Why is it so easy to hurt someone?

A recent poll co-sponsored by the AP and MTV reveals some disturbing, though perhaps not surprising figures. Over half (55%) of the teens and 20-somethings surveyed say they have seen people being mean to each other on social networking sites, and half see discriminatory words (e.g. “slut” or a racial slur) or images on those sites.

Yet 41% of these young women are offended by the word “slut” — 65% are offended if the word is used to describe themselves — 60% of African American youth would be offended if they saw the N-word being used against other people. Put another way, young people commonly engage in, and witness, behavior that hurts and offends their peers.

So what gives? Good old basic psychological theory which includes the disinhibition effect and dissociative anonymity, both described extremely well here by researcher John Suler, explains a lot of this phenomenon. In a nutshell, these theories explain the ease of name-calling online this way: it’s easier to type words than say them out loud because writing is a more indirect form of communication than speaking. It’s especially easier to write words on a computer screen than to say them out loud right in front of another human being. This is because I don’t see the emotional response to the person. I don’t have to defend myself in a physical environment if people disapprove of my actions. In short, I am shielded from the immediate effects of my actions, so it’s easier to perform them.

And then enter the bystander effect.  This is when a bunch of people witness something horrible and/or dangerous (an assault, a burning building, a car accident), yet no one does anything to intervene, figuring that others will do it instead — this is diffusion of responsibility. In short, the larger the audience, the less likely intervention will occur. Given the potentially hundreds, if not thousands of witnesses to name calling on a social networking site, who are also influenced by the disinhibition effect, it’s no wonder cyberbullying runs rampant and no one does anything to stop it!

Cyberbullying is so toxic because it feeds off of human nature, so in order to stop it we have to be more deliberate in our approach and address it head-on. We have to teach people about our inclinations and how to fight them. We need to focus on empathy, understanding, and our circles of influence — we need to think outside of ourselves. Because our instincts are going to lead us to be just another bystander in cyberspace.

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