This week, Chloe Madeley, the daughter of TV presenter Judy Finnigan was subjected to threats of rape by a complete stranger online. Last week, we heard the tragic story about the vile messages directed at the McCann family. You can't escape the modern phenomenon of 'trolling'.
What is perhaps most shocking about these cases is that the perpetrators are more often than not ordinary people, behaving in a way on social media that is out of character with the way they behave offline. How do we know this? Well, it would undoubtedly be tricky to regularly give people this type of personally abusive feedback offline and still be able to function in society. So what exactly is going on and what can be done about it?
A different set of rules and norms
Although trolling is a relatively new phenomenon, there is a growing body of evidence about the 'online disinhibition effect’ – features of the internet that can support antisocial behaviour online. John Suler, Professor of Psychology and an expert in cyber behaviour, describes online disinhibition as a detachment from reality, with some people living a life that they perceive is wholly distinct from the demands and responsibilities of their offline world. This ‘dissociative identity’ links to feelings of ‘invisibility’, giving people the courage to go to places and do things online that they otherwise would not.
Another part of the online disinhibition effect, that may explain some trolls’ behaviour is a dissociative imagination. Here, individuals dissociate online fiction from offline fact, whereby online life consists of games, rules and norms that do not apply in actual living. As such, Suler suggests that once the computer is turned off and daily life returned to, individuals believe they can leave that online game behaviour and their game-identity behind.
It could be that some trolls see their online activity in a similar way to how another person might view playing a game that glamourises offending behaviour on their Playstation or X-Box – it’s not real life, so it’s ok.
The influence of the group
There can be a mob mentality that comes with the trolling territory, too. The power and influence of the group is well documented in social psychology research and it seems reasonable to suggest that these features of group influence offline may have exactly the same effect online.
Unpleasant messages, or the kind that would be screened out of real life with a frown or raised brow at least, are quickly linked to each other through hashtags, specific online forums and communities. Seeing other people behaving in the same way may help to normalise and maintain what is unpleasant behaviour - so it’s cognitive dissonance in action.
4 tips to help keep your children safe online
4 tips to help keep your children safe online
1/4 Talk with your children
This is the most important tool in keep your children safe online. Parents might warn their children about speaking to strangers in real life, but neglect to do the same online. The UK’s Child Exploitation and Online Protection agency (CEOP) says that “for many of today’s young people there is no line between the online and offline worlds”. Speaking with children should include knowing what new sites and gadgets they use.
2/4 Learn about social networks’ privacy settings
For many young people social networks like Facebook will be their main way to share information online. Posted images or status updates that they thought were private might actually be searchable via Google thanks to default privacy settings. Click here to see our guide for making your Facebook profile secure – and find out if your children are using other online networks such as Instagram or Twitter.
3/4 Know which devices have internet access
Internet access is not limited to computers and laptops – devices including smartphones, tablets and game consoles are also able to access the web. Some may do so through your home Wi-Fi and will therefore be covered by your ISP’s filters, but others may use mobile 3G or 4G connections, with filters put in place by the mobile provider - check with your operator to see what filters they have in place.
4/4 Consider setting up parental controls
Each of the big four internet providers (BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media) offers free parental controls that can be activated over the internet, with video guides to all four found here. However, parents should remember that filters are never completely effective, and the software may also block sites offering advice about topics that children do not wish to talk to parents about. Be sure to know what you’re blocking. Click here to watch video guides showing you how to set up filters.
In my work looking at online child sexual abuse I have found some support for the online disinhibition effect maintaining offender behaviour. Men convicted of online grooming talked about how some sexual conversations with young people online did not feel real in relation to their offline identity. In addition, seeing men with a similar sexual interest openly discuss this on forums helped some people feel normal about their own sexual interest in young people.
I am not suggesting that the online environment causes harmful online actions – people can still make choices about what is acceptable and lawful. But far more research is needed in this area to understand why people seem to feel that they can behave differently online and what maintains or supports their abusive online behaviour.
More research will also help us develop the most effective prevention messages and hopefully further promote digital citizenship. One such established message from esafety campaigns pertinent to these recent cases is the concept of the digital footprint. And it is surely this message that is most likely to make people think twice about trolling - that is, once you post a message or image online it is out there forever. There are consequences to online behaviour, and in reality there is very little if any anonymity on the internet.
Stephen Webster is a Research Psychologist at NatCen Social Research. @StephenWNatCen http://www.natcen.ac.uk/Reuse content