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Lindsay Bell

How Online Bullying Affects Your Brain

By: Lindsay Bell | April 10, 2013 | 
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How Online Bullying Affects Your BrainIf familiarity breeds contempt, then what does contempt breed?

Apparently, more contempt.

It’s no secret in the social space we all loathe the ‘negative Nellies.’

Their goal?

To engage in online bullying and spew hateful, hurtful commentary on Facebook pages or blog posts day after day.

Trust me, we’ve experienced more than our fair share of the same here at Spin Sucks.

But, negativity aside, have you ever thought about the affect this online bullying has on the other people reading your content?

Online Bullying

Apparently, a lot. In fact, a recent study showed negative comments can actually change the opinions of otherwise objective readers.

This was determined using a fairly simple, but interesting exercise. Researchers from George Mason University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison set up a fake blog with a news item on a fake product. The Blog post touted its supposed benefits and its possible drawbacks.

They created two versions of the post, one including civilized comments that included both support and skepticism. The other post included those same supportive comments, but was also peppered with classic online bullying behavior. There were ignorant outbursts, obscenities, and troll-like attacks on the other commenters.

Two groups of readers read the article each with one of the set of comments. The ‘nice comments’ group? They retained more or less the same personal opinions they had already formed about this made-up product.

The ‘negative comments’ group? Interestingly, they were more likely to have changed their original personal opinions, having been swayed by the rude, argumentative comments, and much more concerned about the possible drawbacks of the fictional product.

Now remember – this came after reading the comments – not the content of the article. And this came not after reading healthy, civilized debate, but after reading an aggressive, rude, and nasty comment thread.

So, what does this tell you? It told the researchers that nasty, hateful comments don’t just affect one’s mood or frame of mind. They affect how our minds frame ideas and process information.

It’s Evolution, Baby

So, while you’re sitting there, all mature and full of life experience, patting yourselves on the back saying “Oh, come on now. I would *never* be so easily swayed by a few garbage-spewing trolls!” consider this.

We are raising a generation who would be.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, today’s young people are missing out on the luxury of time. The hours spent reading a good book, for example, then the hours spent afterwards pondering what it all means.

This cohort isn’t learning some core skills. Skills that most of us, relative cavemen in comparison to the wired, media savvy youth growing up in today’s digital world, learned as we matured in our slower, simpler world.

These important skills include:

  • Public problem-solving through cooperative work
  • Searching effectively for information online
  • Weighing the quality of information.

Weighing the quality of information – BINGO!

Barry Chudakov, a research fellow at the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto summed up the dilemma it best, “Is this my intention, or is the tool inciting me to feel and think this way?” (Italics are mine.)

Being adept at self-analysis, and able to determine why we feel, think, and react to something the way we do is an important skill. And it’s a skill that some worry the youth of today are not learning how to do.

We’re definitely not going to change this evolution. It’s part and parcel of this exciting new wired world we all now live in. But what we can do as marketers is be proactive.

Constructive Debate

If healthy debate is brewing within your community – jump in there and debate with them – Gini Dietrich is a pro at this! If you have an anonymous commenter being truly hateful and ugly to others (bullying, racial or sexist slurs), by all means block that person and/or delete their vitriol. If they are borderline bullying, but using their real name (a rarity), try taking it offline, perhaps via email, to see if there is a reason said person is so angry about your content or brand.

We’re never going to get rid of the haters and trolls who have been anointed with the greatest online superpower of all: Anonymity.

But we need to remember a string of non-stop negativity might affect how potential clients or consumers feel about your content, your company, and your brand. And if I were a betting lady? I would put money on the fact it is already swaying the opinions of the next generation of social media users. Your future customers.

About Lindsay Bell


Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

46 comments
TaraGeissinger
TaraGeissinger

I worry about the world that my kids are growing up in all the time. It continues to amaze me what people will say in the comments section of a blog, online newspaper story or Facebook post. It used to be that our blog comments could be anonymous -- and then the haters really came out. But even now, with our accounts linked everywhere and identities out in the open, people are just as unfiltered. It's sad.

jdrobertson
jdrobertson

I have often wondered - do people I don't know or barely know feel they have to use profanity when speaking with me because they think it's the only thing I understand - that, in fact, it's all I'm capable of grasping! They certainly don't do much for my quality of life!!!!!

KristenDaukas
KristenDaukas

I did a post a couple of weeks on my personal blog about bullying bloggers. It's ridiculous and it's really bad in the parenting blogging world. God forbid should you not feed Junior organic bean sprouts instead of a twinkie once in a while. Just because you have a voice and an audience doesn't give you the right to bully someone else. I have a "warning" that the only nasty comments that are allowed are those that fall into the "It's Jackson if you're nasty" category.. all others will be banned. 

giesencreative
giesencreative

It looks like the original study is available online temporarily, if anyone wants to take a look. To clarify, the bullying comments are more polarizing than convincing. If you support the topic and see rude comments, you'll be less concerned by the risks. If you're against the topic and see rude comments, you'll be more concerned by the risks. Explains political debates pretty well...

allenmireles
allenmireles

This is the other thing that jumped out me: "...today’s young people are missing out on the luxury of time. The hours spent reading a good book, for example, then the hours spent afterwards pondering what it all means." We're all feeling pressed for time but this really highlights an important area.

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes

Let's be honest, @ginidietrich is among the worst trolls the Chicago chapter of Flying Squirrels and Killer Dolphins has ever encountered.

It is only because she is on vacation that we have finally regained control of our website and comment system.

And in other semi serious news the question isn't whether you are going to be visited by trolls but what you do when they show up.

You can't always manage the situation by not feeding them because sometimes a lack of response encourages their behavior. If they are spewing out "facts" sometimes you have to address them too or you let them set the narrative.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

Go Patriots! GMU is my alma mater. :) 

I feel lucky that I haven't really been targeted by trolls on any of the stuff that I have written here or on my own site, but I've seen certainly witnessed my fair share of it around the web over the years. I wonder, though, whether we as a digital society are simply less adept at recognizing good, honest, intellectually rigorous debate and just mislabeling it as being "negative". 

I've been called lots of things over the years, but shy certainly isn't one of those. If I see something that I disagree with, I'll voice my opinion in a calm, reasoned manner. Sure, sometimes emotions run a bit hot, but being challenged publicly about something I've written benefits my thinking. When @thebrandbuilder was a guest on my podcast, we discussed this in some detail. My two cents: people who have invested substantially into their "personal brands" (gah, I do hate that term) tend to be the first to get unreasonably defensive when their thinking is challenged.  


Latest blog post: Poetry Friday: Ezra Pound

Katherine Bull
Katherine Bull

Great article and topic, Lindsay. I've been a target, and I worry about my 8 year old being a target one day.   I feel/felt so strongly about this subject that I published a book called Civility in the Digital Age, by Andrea Weckerle at www.CiviliNation.org.  Andrea's book is a real gem - case studies and great advice. http://amzn.to/12IMYe3  There are so many different aspects of bullying and in many cases can ruin people's lives. Kids are killing themselves because they are being bullied. It is a national crisis, IMHO. We need to keep talking about it. 

yvettepistorio
yvettepistorio

Um, apparently great minds think alike because I JUST wrote about bullying. 

Haters gonna hate no matter what. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@KristenDaukas Ohhhhh yes, parents everywhere can be so incredibly judgemental of each other - I imagine online it's pretty bad. I just figure to each their own, you know? It takes A LOT of effort and energy to be negative and judge'y all the time. I've never understood what people get out of it. Makes themselves feel superior? I guess. I watch shows like Hoarders when I need to feel superior. And just barely. ;) 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@KenMueller Funny how no one talks (much) about adult online bullying - I mean, we need to protect our kids, etc., from how horrible it can be for them - but there's just as much of it going on at an adult level, and I don't care how strong or confident a person you are, it can be just as hard to take as a grown up. I try and remind myself that anyone who has that much free time on their hands to troll around being a hater must be a total loser. ;) 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@allenmireles That statement really struck me also Allen, especially having a 13 year old son at home. I am a voracious reader and have been since I was a youngster. My boy...? Meh. Could care less. I find it troubling, but hope he'll change as he gets older. How can you NOT LIKE BOOKS!!?? 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes Exactly Josh. Not feeding = ignoring (for some people) and that will just fan the flames. I think being engaged and trying to get a little control back in the comment stream is key. It shows your other community members that you're listening, and are there for them, and it also shows the troll that you are not going to sit back and let them run roughshod over the conversation. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@jasonkonopinski @thebrandbuilder I hear you Jason, but "good, honest, intellectually rigorous debate" is not what I mean but bullying and troll like behaviour. Do I think we all are very quick to jump and/or not get the humour sometimes? Yes. But when it's hard core abusive negativity it needs to be addressed. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@Katherine Bull Oh Katherine, the kid thing is SUCH a horrible and gargantuan 'other story' isn't it? My son is 13, and his friends are absolutely vicious to each other. Thanks for the book link. While I've never been personally attacked online (er, to my knowledge! LOL) but it never ceases to amaze me how quickly people jump all over each other - even absolute strangers - when they're interacting online. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@yvettepistorio Haters gonna hate, definitely - but they need to be dealt with - it was surprising to me to read how much impact the trolls had on the people reading the 'test' article. Brands beware. :) 

Katherine Bull
Katherine Bull

@belllindsay @KenMueller Totally agree with you both. The damage, as I wrote in my very long comment, goes beyond hurt feelings. It can be life changing. And guess what? When it is "out there" on the Internet there is no way to pull it back or defend yourself without spending days (months?) finding every instance out there. 

Katherine Bull
Katherine Bull

@belllindsay @allenmireles This is such a critical point. I'm in NO way a perfect parent but I have a couple of house rules. No Wii, Internet, or TV during the week. A big part of this is that I figured out that it really affected my daughter's ability to fall asleep. She can read all she wants though. We also go the library every Sunday and she can check out up to 20 books as long as she keeps track of them or pays the fees out of her allowance. (I also check them for age appropriateness) She has a limit of two hours of screen time on Sat and Sunday and I set the timer. This seems to be working...so far. 

Katherine Bull
Katherine Bull

@belllindsay (I'm hating LiveFyre because it "lost" my long, thoughtful comment!) Lindsay, it is truly amazing how this behavior is starting so young. The sad and confusing part is that I know good parents who have been sickened to find out that their kid is being a bully. And I would bet that these 13 year old bullies will grow up to be adult bullies - an even more terrifying thought. When I was 13 there was bullying but it was pre-Internet so anything said was said to another kid's face. Hiding behind the written word makes it so much easier for kids to bully. 

I digress though...Until you, your friend or loved one is bullied on-line it is hard to imagine the feeling of total helplessness.  I've had that feeling and it is terrible. In my case, it was on Twitter and how do you correct the facts in 140 characters? You can't. I couldn't. So I'm confident there are a large number of people who have a certain impression of me and my employer. An impression that is based upon incorrect information. I know I'm not the only one who has experienced this. And the really shitty part of bullies is that if you offer to resolve the situation in a phone call, they will refuse. It's a good strategy because they aren't accountable nor do they have to stop and you don't have any way of stopping them either. 

I totally agree that healthy debate is important and needed. However, within the social media bubble, I don't often see respectful, healthy debates. Instead of "Huh. I never thought about it that way" there is a free fall into nastiness - subtle and not so subtle. In theory, the "attack the idea, not the person" is a reasonable approach. It is tricky though because an idea is intrinsically connected to the person who has the idea. 

As well, I deeply believe that the majority of people who write nasty comments, posts, etc. would never, ever say those words to the person's face. That, to me, should be the litmus test for anybody communicating on-line. 

Words can hurt - yes. But, what I don't think people realize is that words can ruin another person's reputation, cause financial and custody issues, or in a hell of a lot of trouble at work or even get someone fired. The stakes are MUCH higher than most people realize. 

The bottom line for me is that I know when the line between healthy debate and bullying has been crossed. It is a fairly thin line but I know it when I see it. I think most people do. 




belllindsay
belllindsay

@Katherine Bull @KenMueller That's the biggest thing - the whole "to infinity and beyond" of the internet. Side note, but similar, a highly respected Canadian swim coach just went through the nightmare of clearing his name after a false 'sexual touching' allegation. As he said in an article, "while I was proven innocent, the first thing you see when you Google my name is the court case, etc.. That will never go away." He doubts he'll ever get back to coaching because of that, the lingering 'smell'. The internet is a scary and powerful place. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

@Katherine Bull Would you mind emailing me Katherine? I'm at LBell@armentdietrich.com. Would love to chat a bit more about this. Powerful stuff.