Bad be­hav­iour is trend­ing on­line, in­spir­ing it in real life

The Hamilton Spectator - - LIVING - SANDY CO­HEN LOS AN­GE­LES —

Young chil­dren know that name-call­ing is wrong. Tweens are taught the per­ils of on­line bul­ly­ing and re­venge porn: it’s un­ac­cept­able and po­ten­tially il­le­gal.

But celebri­ties who en­gage in fla­grant at­tacks on so­cial me­dia are re­warded with world­wide at­ten­tion. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s most pop­u­lar tweet to date is a video that shows him fake-pum­mel­ing a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion of CNN. Re­al­ity TV star Rob Kar­dashian was trend­ing last week af­ter at­tack­ing his for­mer fi­ancée on In­sta­gram in a flurry of posts so ex­plicit his ac­count was shut down. He con­tin­ued the at­tacks on Twit­ter, where he has more than 7.6 mil­lion fol­low­ers.

While public in­ter­est in bad be­hav­iour is noth­ing new, so­cial me­dia has cre­ated a vast new venue for in­ci­vil­ity to be ex­pressed, wit­nessed and shared. And ex­perts say it’s af­fect­ing so­cial in­ter­ac­tions in real life.

“Over time, the at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours that we are con­cerned with right now in so­cial me­dia will bleed out into the phys­i­cal world,” said Karen North, a psy­chol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s Dig­i­tal So­cial Me­dia Pro­gram. “We’re sup­posed to learn to be po­lite and civil in so­ci­ety. But what we have right now is a sit­u­a­tion where a num­ber of role mod­els are act­ing the op­po­site of that ...”

“And by watch­ing it, we vi­car­i­ously feel it, and our own at­ti­tudes and be­hav­iours change as a re­sult.”

Cather­ine Steiner-Adair, a psy­chol­o­gist and au­thor of “The Big Dis­con­nect: Pro­tect­ing Child­hood and Fam­ily Re­la­tion­ships in the Dig­i­tal Age,” said she’s al­ready see­ing the ef­fects.

She said she’s been con­fronted by stu­dents across the coun­try ask­ing why celebri­ties and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers are al­lowed to en­gage in name-call­ing and other ac­tiv­i­ties for which they would be pun­ished.

On some mid­dle-school cam­puses, “Trump­ing” means to grab a girl’s rear end, she said.

And teenagers have killed them­selves over the kind of slut­sham­ing and ex­po­sure of pri­vate im­ages Kar­dashian lev­elled at Blac Chyna, with whom he has an in­fant daugh­ter.

“We are nor­mal­iz­ing be­hav­iours, and it’s af­fect­ing some kids,” Steiner-Adair said. “And what’s af­fect­ing kids that is pro­found is their mis­trust of grownups who are be­hav­ing so badly. Why aren’t they stop­ping this?”

So­cial me­dia sat­is­fies a hu­man need for con­nec­tion. Users bond over com­mon in­ter­ests and estab­lish dig­i­tal re­la­tion­ships with their favourite public fig­ures, fol­low­ing and com­ment­ing on their lives just like they do their friends’.

Gossip is a bond­ing ac­tiv­ity, and it doesn’t take a Real Housewife to know peo­ple love to share dirt about oth­ers’ per­ceived mis­deeds. Col­lec­tive dis­ap­proval cre­ates a feel­ing of com­mu­nity, re­gard­less of which side you’re on. Hav­ing a com­mon en­emy is “one of the strong­est bond­ing fac­tors in hu­man na­ture,” North said.

With 352,000 retweets, Trump’s CNN-pum­mel­ing post isn’t in the realm of Ellen DeGeneres’ Oscar selfie (3.4 mil­lion retweets). And Kar­dashian’s rant against Chyna paled in pop­u­lar­ity with Bey­oncé’s In­sta­gram preg­nancy an­nounce­ment, which col­lected 8 mil­lion likes.

Still, Trump’s at­tack tweets have proven his most pop­u­lar, ac­cord­ing to a new study by Ohio State Uni­ver­sity Pro­fes­sor Jayeon “Janey” Lee.

“At­tacks on the me­dia were most ef­fec­tive,” Lee said of her anal­y­sis of tweets posted dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. “When­ever Trump crit­i­cized or mocked the me­dia, the mes­sage was more likely to be retweeted and ‘favour­ited.’”

Trump, who has 33.4 mil­lion Twit­ter fol­low­ers, has de­fended his so­cial-me­dia ap­proach as “modern day pres­i­den­tial.”

Cy­ber in­ci­vil­ity, par­tic­u­larly when prac­tised by cul­tural lead­ers, can have a pro­found im­pact on hu­man re­la­tions, North said.

Stud­ies show that young peo­ple who wit­ness ag­gres­sive be­hav­iour in adults model and ex­pand on that be­hav­iour. She pointed to Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity psy­chol­o­gist Al­bert Ban­dura’s fa­mous “Bobo Doll Ex­per­i­ment,” which found that kids who saw adults hit a doll in frus­tra­tion not only hit the doll as well, but at­tacked it with weapons.

So­cial me­dia is an at­mos­phere de­void of the so­cial cues that mit­i­gate be­hav­iour in real life, she said. When vi­o­lat­ing so­cial norms in per­son, there’s im­me­di­ate feed­back from oth­ers through body lan­guage and tone of voice. No such in­di­ca­tors ex­ist on­line, and retweets can feel like val­i­da­tion.

Cruel and hu­mil­i­at­ing posts of­ten be­come “an in­stant hit on­line,” Steiner-Adair said. “It’s one of the best ways to be­come pop­u­lar.”

Vi­ral posts then get main­stream me­dia at­ten­tion, spread­ing dig­i­tal nas­ti­ness into ev­ery­day con­ver­sa­tion.

By not ex­pressly re­ject­ing cruel or hate­ful on­line be­hav­iour, “we are cre­at­ing a by­stander cul­ture where peo­ple think this is funny,” she said.

“When we tol­er­ate lead­ers — in the pop­u­lar me­dia like a Kar­dashian, or a pres­i­dent — be­hav­ing in this way, we are cre­at­ing a very dan­ger­ous petri dish for mas­sive cul­tural change,” Steiner-Adair said.

Young peo­ple, who may be the most plugged in, are get­ting mixed mes­sages as they form their moral con­cepts.

“It be­hooves us all to ques­tion why we are par­tic­i­pat­ing in this mob of re­ac­tiv­ity,” Steiner-Adair said, “and what are the char­ac­ter traits we need to model for our chil­dren.”

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