Mean Girls Aren’t Just in High School: The Sting of Social Media

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

Be Kind Whenever Possible

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The Story

A childhood friend recently posted a nostalgic meme on Facebook that bore the caption “You never forget the neighborhood kids you grew up with.”She tagged a bunch of us from our old stomping ground. A smile came to my face as I saw my name there and the names of others who shared that special time and place. Instantly many fond memories came to mind. Based on the number of likes and comments it was clear that others were equally touched. Many posted specific memories and others chimed in with “OMG I forgot all about that!” There was a consensus that we were lucky to have grown up where and when we did.

It was all fun and friendly. Until it wasn’t.

Inevitably the posts veered toward the not-so-nice as some posted less-than-flattering recollections and made comments about specific people-some of whom were friends and relatives of those tagged in the post. It got a little ugly. No one wants to see their dead grandmother referred to as the neighborhood witch or their mother as the crazy lady on the block. That smile on my face turned to a cringe. I know kids can be cruel, often without really understanding all the ramifications of their words or actions. But these people, my peers, are adults-middle aged adults no less. Shouldn’t we know better by now? Shouldn’t we be better by now?

Fortunately someone (the initial poster, I assume, who is a kind and gentle person) caring enough about the feelings of those involved, took down the entire post. However, not before the Facebook email notifications were sent out, giving us all a taste of the vitriol.

So, about that dead grandmother-yeah, she would be mine. Her name was Florence, by the way. She liked Teaberry gum, the color yellow and car rides through the countryside. And she loved her granddaughter (that would be me). She was a big part of the reason I had a great childhood.

About her not letting the neighborhood kids play baseball in her yard? Well, see she did once and they trampled one of her rose bushes. She cried about that. She loved her rose bushes. Not just because they were beautiful flowers. More importantly, because they were a Mother’s Day gift from her son James. James was in a wheelchair (and sometimes an iron lung) after contracting polio at six months old. She used to take the bus into “the city” every day when he was in the hospital there. He died young. Those rose bushes were all she had left of him. So yeah, she didn’t want them trampled by thoughtless kids playing baseball. But no, she was not “a mean old bat.” She was grandma.

What a shame that all the fun and good memories evoked by that post had to be thrown out with the proverbial bathwater that were these cruel comments. I guess, like our childhood, it was fun while it lasted.

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Psych Summary

There have always been issues that are hot spots-politics, religion, money-topics that are value-laden and bring out strong emotions. Even good friends can slip easily into vicious debates about such subjects. Etiquette books have long advised refraining from discussing such matter in “polite company.” But I am amazed when an issue that is not among these hot topics elicits over-the-top reactions.

This overreaction seems exaggerated in social media venues. Even quilt patterns and chocolate chip cookie recipes inevitably lead to at least a few venomous comments, sometime burgeoning into full-blown battles. We have a special name for the worst of the worst in this category-trolls-those who purposely, repeatedly provoke others through malicious responses and inflammatory posts.

Business psychology professor Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic from University College London says this about the psychology of chronic trolls, “Trolling is a status-enhancing activity: by attracting readers’ attention, upsetting people, sparking heated debates, and even gaining approval from others, trolls can feel important, perhaps much more than they are in their real lives. Thus trolling is yet another internet activity that promotes narcissistic motives, since trolls may be expected to be far less successful in attracting people’s attention in the physical world.”

But even everyday, normal people-our friends, who are kind and generous, who post puppy pictures and DIY craft videos-can also occasionally drift into the realm of caustic comments.

The phenomena had been discussed in venues as diverse as Scientific American, The Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post, as well as various online blogs. Most cite the idea that social media provides platforms that allow people to disconnect their identities or sense of self from their words.Because the interactions are not direct and personal, people do not experience the immediate consequences of having to take responsibility for their actions. We become desensitized, in a way, to the effect we are having on others because we do not see the immediate reaction in body language or in-your-face retort. Consequently, people are more impulsive in their responses.

With social media there exists a paradoxical sense of anonymity, even if you are representing your true identity. Somehow, you feel safer behind that shield of the computer screen. Social psychologists cite the process of deindividuation as facilitating the antinormative and disinhibited behavior seen in combative online actions. In short, it is the new techno equivalent of collective behavior such as crowd theory and mob mentality, and like those phenomena, it seems to feed on itself with people growing bolder and more aggressive as they see others doing so. It is grounded in a diminished sense of individual responsibility and a disconnect from normal personal or societal standards of conduct and it evolves from the false sense of security and obscurity.

Certainly free speech is a cornerstone of our democratic society and healthy, respectful debate can help us all see issues from differing perspectives. But hurtful comments, ranging from the carelessly insensitive to the sadistic, tend to close our minds rather than open them. We become defensive and mercurial. Lacking the social controls naturally imposed by proximity and fueled by the abrasive retorts of others, we abandon the usual restraint and social etiquette. We emote and press post, even when our better self would not.

We’ve all done it in some form-acted less than our better self because of the heat of the moment or other situational stressors. Today’s technology just gives us a wider and more reactive audience to our momentary madness.

It becomes then our obligation, in the service of civility, to impose our own internal constraints upon ourselves. Perhaps we can be guided by the sage words spoken by both Dalai Lama and Mother Theresa, “Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

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