Long ago John Gabriel had a theory about what made people act poorly on the internet:
This theory has become almost a mantra when talking about online harassment and trolling behaviors. Ask almost anyone why some people behave like rabid barracudas online and you’ll almost certainly hear, “anonymity” as the most common response.
But as the internet has matured, anonymity has decreased. Slowly, internet users have transitioned from using screen names to “real” names. For example, Facebook requires its users to provide their “real” name rather than an online handle. On Twitter, the use of “real” names has been growing in popularity.
While anonymity is certainly a contributing factor – because you don’t see people getting into brawls in the theater lobby over which Star Wars lightsaber is the most canon – there must be something else in play.
In a recent edition of Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, Dr. Michelle Wright examined what attributes contributed to teens engaging in “anonymous cyber aggression” (ACA).
Dr. Wright discovered a 3-way cluster of traits which strongly predicted whether a teen engaged in ACA: high confidence in not getting caught, strong beliefs in the normality of cyber aggression, and strong beliefs in the impermanence of posted digital content.
Stated another way, teens who believe cyber aggression is normal, that the content they post will not be on the internet forever, and believe they won’t get caught while engaging in ACA are much more likely to engage in ACA compared to teens who do not have this cluster of traits.
While more research is certainly needed in this area, this does provide some insight on how to decrease the likelihood of a teen participating in ACA. Discussions about how nothing online is every really gone is a good place to start. Utilizing parental controls and being aware of what your teen is doing online would likely help in the “won’t get caught” department. As for demonstrating how ACA is not a normal part of the online experience… I’m not quite sure how to accomplish that. Thankfully, just lowering one of the three traits appeared to significantly reduce ACA behaviors; but I’ll keep thinking on that.