Cyberbullying is a major source of concern to many parents, but research is lagging behind reality. As Dr. Tom Harrison of the Jubilee Centre for Character and Values observes in a recent article, “Research into the impact of the Internet on children and young peoples’ morality has struggled to keep up with technology’s rapid development and innovation.” Harrison’s exhaustive research intends not only to understand cyberbullying, but to bring research up to speed with present events.
“Interpretations oscillate between extremes,” Harrison writes. “Young people online are depicted as either predominantly truthful or dishonest, compassionate or callous, selfless or selfish, altruistic or egotistical, courageous or cowardly, or as modest or vain. What is clear is that the Internet appears to influence young people in a number of complex ways, and that it is not obvious if such influence is predominantly positive or negative. The only common ground in the literature is a broad agreement that the Internet is, in some way, having an effect on the morality of children and young people.”
Harrison’s research, done in interviews with groups of respondents, discovers two reasons why young adults engage in cyberbullying. “One is that they don’t believe there are any rules on the internet. Said one respondent, ‘I don’t know anyone who follows rules on the Internet, I don’t even know where they are.’ Many of the participants identified an increased sense of freedom from restrictions as one of the biggest differences between their online and offline lives . . . A distinction was drawn between schools, which are ‘full of rules’ and the Internet, which is a ‘free for all.’ One participant stated ‘There are rules at school about no bullying, no fighting. The teachers sort this out. They don’t online.'”
Secondly, participants in Harrison’s study observe that on the internet they and their peers are able to not just be anonymous, but assume new identities. “Some people use the Internet to reinvent themselves to be like a completely new person,” said a student. “But it can actually lead to cyberbullying, what they say behind screens might be different to what they say to your face.” Cyberbullies therefore disassociate themselves from their actions. “Many interviewees,” reports Harrison, “cited examples of people they knew who acted differently online deciding to adopt a different Internet lifestyle and identity. If young people believe they cannot be found out, and that what they do online cannot be traced to other social dimensions of their lives, they are more likely to act in socially dislocated ways.”
“The new opportunities that the Internet has opened up for young people require them more than ever to ‘do the right thing,'” Harrison concludes, “not so much motivated by rules, duties or consequences (since these may not always be explicit), but by having the character to choose wisely between alternatives. An important question to ask in future research is how best to educate digitally virtuous citizens to help them make good and wise decisions.”