Friday, May 7, 2010

Bullying and Emotional Intelligence on the Web

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgFormspring, a recent entry into the social networking milieu, is finally beginning to attract mainstream attention as parents and educators have to deal with the fallout from preteens and teens who are confronted with ugly criticism on the site. Formspring allows users to post and answer questions, some of which are rather personal. And as users link the site to Facebook and other popular social networking sites, they open themselves up to comments and questions from any number of people who can post anonymously if they so choose. Sexual history, bra size, and more are all fair game on the site. Questions are delivered to the user's inbox, and the user decides which to answer. Answered questions appear on the user's profile, and a surprising number of answered questions are of the anonymously submitted personal variety. Why? And what does this signify about the state of emotional intelligence with regard to the web?

Since Formspring users have the option to choose which questions to answer and share, it is puzzling why they choose to respond to anonymous posters seeking personal information. However, the user base of Formspring seems to be a fairly youthful crowd who may not only have differing opinions on what constitutes personal information, but may also have a different sense of the social status awarded by participating in these forums. The act of sharing information online makes the following statements:
  • The user is tech-savvy and connected to others.
  • The user is interesting to others who make inquiries and post comments.
However, more often than not, these users have not stopped to think about the long-term effects of participation in these types of online behaviors, which may be hampering social development, including emotional intelligence (EI).

The deaths of Phoebe Prince, Megan Meier, and Alexis Pilkington have raised concerns over the phenomenon of cyber-bullying. Once relegated to the playground and school hallways, bullying has moved online and under the cloak of anonymity it is both more public and more vicious. Long held to be a rite of passage and a natural occurrence at the playground, researchers are only just beginning to understand the long-term effects of bullying on emotional development in children. Bullying does appear to be a fairly common occurrence, but Snyder et. al. (2003) suggest that this may be due in part to the absence of efficient adult supervision of social interaction at this stage when children are just beginning to navigate relationships (1893).

Snyder et. al. (2003) observed victimization in 266 kindergartners and first graders on a substantial level: "On average children were targets of peer physical violence or verbal harassment about once every 3 to 6 minutes" (1885). This finding fits with the existing research gathered via observations, peer reports, and child self reports and suggest that bullying may be the result of young children learning to regulate their emotions and behavior in response to peer conflict (Synder et. al. 2003: 1893).

While victimization does appear to be largely situational for children at this age—dependent on what the child is doing, and where and with whom the child is playing—evidence suggests that children who respond to aggression by peers in ways that diminish the effects of that aggression ultimately discourage harassment, which becomes increasingly intermittent (Snyder et. al. 2003: 1894). That is, children who display "victim tendencies"—identified by these researchers as the manifestation of social disengagement and recognizable anxiety—tend to experience more harassment for longer periods than children who do not.  This suggests that over time, some children learn how to manage their emotional response to harassment, and consequently manipulate the emotional responses of others.

One way to understand this form of emotional management is with emotional intelligence (EI), defined as:
the capacity to reason about emotions, and of emotions to enhance thinking. It includes the abilities to accurately perceive emotions, to access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and to reflectively regulate emotions so as to promote emotional and intellectual growth (Mayer et. al. 2004: 197)
Emotional intelligence is an important social tool; it helps mediate our relationships with others. Individuals with high EI also seem to do better in school and succeed at their jobs (Mayer et. al. 2004). However, persistent bullying can increase anti-social behavior, which in turn can impact the development of EI. As bullied children withdraw socially, they also reduce their opportunities to perceive and respond to emotions and consequently develop EI. Researchers Mayer et. al (2004) report an inverse relationship between bullying and EI.

Sites like Formspring are reminiscent of online bulletin and community boards, where users can meet virtually and get to know one another, and eventually build a reputation based around a specific expertise. Granted, preteens, teens, and young adults on Formspring  are not utilizing this particular site for this purpose—they are exploiting it for information. But users are generating reputations via their participation because they are creating a digital trail that may follow them for the rest of their lives, which they must be made aware of. The cloak of anonymity permits some posters and users to transgress boundaries they would not necessarily cross en mass in real life. However, in answering even one anonymous personal question by providing the requested personal information, perhaps those users are encouraging the cycle of bullying. Snyder et. al. suggest that
like many insidious processes that mediate long-term change, the data indicate that the causal relation is reciprocal. Sadness, social disengagement, and worry are apparent to peers. Children who frequently display such behavior are likely marks for peer rejection and aggression perhaps because they lack sufficient skills to cope with harassment or a supportive peer network that mitigates victimization (2003: 1895).
So because these individuals cannot find ways to deflect online aggression, it persists. Whereas individuals who manage to find flippant ways to respond to personal questions may dissuade further personal inquiries. For example, questions about how far teens have gone in relationships are sometimes met with answers like, “I’ve been to Morocco.”

Though EI may evolve with the web, it's also important to help give children the skills they need to operate in our digital world. It's no secret on this site that I am a huge advocate of digital education, but we also need to evaluate ourselves what our expectations are concerning our interactions online. What value do anonymous posters add to discussions? Is it time to shift attention to developing online identities and evaluating the content and information produced by these individuals?

Let's hear your thoughts below.

Mayer, J., Salovey, P., & Caruso, D. (2004). TARGET ARTICLES: "Emotional Intelligence: Theory, Findings, and Implications" Psychological Inquiry, 15 (3), 197-215 DOI: 10.1207/s15327965pli1503_02

Snyder, J., Brooker, M., Patrick, M., Snyder, A., Schrepferman, L., & Stoolmiller, M. (2003). Observed Peer Victimization During Early Elementary School: Continuity, Growth, and Relation to Risk for Child Antisocial and Depressive Behavior Child Development, 74 (6), 1881-1898 DOI: 10.1046/j.1467-8624.2003.00644.x

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