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Column: Online bullying is fuelled by changes in our culture

Some children may be missing out on a key stage of development, writes psychotherapist Joanna Fortune.

Joanna Fortune

RECENTLY I WAS reading a popular Irish fashion/celebrity gossip blog post on Facebook that had a picture of child actress, now all grown up.

It appeared to be her professional head shot. The caption under the post read “Remember her?” and I smiled as I did – she is a theatre actress now in adulthood.

However my smile faded as I scrolled down through the comments posted underneath by other readers, including “Lesbian head on her” and “She has a creepy face” to name but a few. (There were pleasant comments too it should be noted.) It got me wondering if any of these people would be so casual and comfortable about saying this to the actress in question’s face. I doubt it – far more likely to ask her to pose for a photo with them and say how much they loved her in her movies.

So what is the difference between saying something online and to someone’s face? I believe it is twofold: the degree of empathy that gets lost online; and the fact that when you say something online about someone it doesn’t feel like you are saying it to them. It doesn’t feel real, and therefore the potential consequences are not considered.

We are all too familiar with the at-times-tragic consequences of being at the receiving end of nasty things said about you online. We have lost three teenagers this year in Ireland, amid a public outcry for the State to regulate and somehow control social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Ask.fm. But I’m not convinced that this is the answer, because I don’t think it is the correct question to ask.

Harassment

Rather, consider the why. Why is it that our young people (and let’s be honest, it’s not exclusively young people – there are many adult internet trolls out there) feel it is OK to denigrate, harass and demean others – sometimes people they barely know and other times people they sit beside every day at school or work – once you do it online and not to their face?

Recent research by NUI Maynooth showed that teenage girls are more likely to engage in this form of bullying than their male counterparts, and also that participants felt that cyber-bullying was the worst form of bullying because it could be seen by more people and go unnoticed by adults.

A 2010 research study by the University of Michigan measured the empathy levels in college students, compared them to previous generations at the same age (14,000 students over 30 year period) and found that today’s young people show a significantly lower level of empathy towards others than previous generations. The biggest drop came after 2000, when empathy levels measured up to 40 per cent lower than their counterparts 30 years previously.

It is estimated that the average person is now exposed to three times more non-work related information via media (and, increasingly, social media) than previous generations and this cannot be overlooked as a possible reason for the drop in empathy levels. Having hundreds or even thousands of ‘fans’ or online ‘friends’ allows people to relate at a removed level. You can change who you are, comment on photos and activities of others, often people you barely know in the real world.

Sensational

This combined with the rise of reality TV – which is always more sensational than reality -encourages people to mock, denigrate and comment publicly (and anonymously if you choose) on the mistakes and misery of others, in a way that you simply wouldn’t do if they were your friend and needed your sympathy.

It has become so easy to interact virtually that we are investing less and less time engaging with people at a personal level, and this is having a profound effect on our empathy levels.

Children develop empathy skills from approximately three years of age onwards (though the capacity is building from infancy) through projective play. We see an increase in narrative-based play and playing with dolls/teddies to re-enact real life events as a means of better understanding them.

Teddy 1: No teddy, you must go to bed when you are told.

Teddy 2: But I want to stay up and watch TV!

Teddy 1: It’s bedtime now and you can watch TV tomorrow.

Teddy 2: Oh, OK then.

Engaging in this kind of play forces the child to consider the perspectives of others and thereby develops empathy, understanding and problem-solving skills – all of which are developmentally essential and help to build our social intelligence levels, enabling us to read potentially dangerous situations and also forge and develop relationships.

What we are seeing now is a generation, so-called ‘Generation Me’, who have not successfully negotiated this stage – likely because of an increased focus on virtual play and virtual interaction with people who do not exist for them in the real world.

Parents can take control of this by monitoring the amount of access and time spent on virtual play, communicating and connecting with your child/teenager through creative and imaginative means. Remember to ask “I wonder how that would feel for someone to do or say that about you?” and ensure empathy is a key part of your parenting strategy.

Joanna Fortune is a clinical psychotherapist working with children and families for over 12 years. She is the founder and director of Solamh Parent Child Relationship Clinic in Dublin. For more info, call 01 6976568 or follow on Twitter: @solamh

Read: More columns from Joanna Fortune on TheJournal.ie>

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