Mapping Our Online Communications And Relationships
January 20, 2013

Researchers Probe Social Media, Cyber Bullying, And Online Relationships

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

While school-aged victims of cyber bullying are often thought of as ostracized outsiders, new research suggests that they are more likely to be members of mainstream social groups and are often targeted by friends, former friends, or ex-dating partners.

The discovery comes as part of a wider study, presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP) in New Orleans, exploring the impact that social media and other online activities have on behavior and day-to-day relationships in the real world.

"Researchers have known for a while that individuals give unique cues about who they are with the things they own, clothes they wear, things they say and do. However, though these cues are informative to knowing who someone truly is, they were not always so easily accessible to our entire social network," study presenter Lindsay Graham of the University of Texas said in a statement.

"Now with much of our lives being lived online, and the boundaries having been blurred between who sees these cues and who doesn't, it is all the more important to pay attention to the kinds of impressions we are giving off to those around us,” Graham added.

Experts believe that up to 160,000 students per year skip school in order to avoid bullying, but it has become harder to escape such harassment because of social media, texting, and other high-tech communication innovations in recent years. Bullying, whether in person or online, has been linked to anxiety, depression, academic problems, and even thoughts of suicide, the researchers claim.

“To study so-called ℠cyber-aggression´ — harassment that occurs online — Diane Felmlee of the Pennsylvania State University and Robert Faris of the University of California, Davis, studied 788 students at a preparatory school in Long Island. They mapped the students' social network structure relative to online harassment: asking students to name their close friends, which schoolmates they have picked on or been mean to, and which schoolmates had picked on them.”

“What they found was that cyber-aggression occurs in the mainstream of the school and largely among friends, former friends, and former dating partners,” they added. “They also found that non-heterosexual students were more likely to be the victims. Examples of the types of harassment found online were posting humiliating photos, texting vicious rumors, posting that a student is gay and making fun of him, and pretending to befriend a lonely person.”

Felmlee reports that the most frequent targets of acts of cyber-aggression were students who were described as relatively popular, not those perceived to be outsiders. Furthermore, the researchers discovered that strangers were typically not the instigators of such acts; rather, victims were usually targeted by people with whom they once enjoyed close relationships — individuals who had been close enough to know how to get under their skin, as it were.

“The researchers found that some of the processes that contribute to aggression in school include jockeying for status, enforcing norms of conformity, and competing for girlfriends or boyfriends,” the researchers explained. Furthermore, they said, “even more innocuous online interactions can prove problematic for offline relationships“¦ One new study shows that disclosing more about ourselves online actually lessens intimacy and satisfaction among romantic couples.”

According to Juwon Lee of the University of Kansas, who conducted a series of studies on the subject, “contrary to the research on offline self-disclosure, which shows that more offline disclosure leads to higher intimacy and relationship satisfaction between both romantic couples and friends, online self-disclosure was negatively associated with intimacy and satisfaction between couples."

Lee´s team discovered that while increased usage of Facebook did not have any profound impact on friendships, the same could not be said of romantic relationships. They created a pair of fake accounts on the popular social network — one of which included a high rate of posts disclosing personal information, and another that included more neutral status updates, discussing such things as the weather.

“They asked the participants to imagine that one of the walls was their partner's and then measured their relationship intimacy and satisfaction,” the researchers said. “Those who had the walls with high levels of self-disclosure reported less intimacy and satisfaction with their relationships compared to those with the more minimal walls.”

"Disclosing a high degree of personal information online, regardless of whether or not the information is related to your partner or relationship, will likely negatively affect your romantic relationship," Lee says.

Similarly, another part of the research looked at the similarities and differences between the image a person projects in his or her online profiles and the image he or she gives off in offline, everyday life. To make such a comparison, psychologists looked as both World of Warcraft players as well as those who tended to frequently visit bars or cafes in a pair of different studies, the authors explained.

"With more and more of our lives being lived both in the physical and virtual worlds, it's important to understand the kinds of impressions we give off to others through the traces we leave behind in our environments," Graham, who co-authored these studies, said. "Whether we're creating a screen name or avatar for ourselves, or broadcasting that the bar or coffee shop down the street is one of our frequent hangouts, we are inevitably telling those around us something about who we are as individuals."

In the first study, Graham and colleagues found that, while people are able to make “consistent judgments about a player´s personality,” those impressions did not always match the way in which the player viewed himself or herself. In the second, they randomly selected 50 cafes and bars in the Austin, Texas area, then looked at the profile pictures of frequent visitors to those establishments on the social network Foursquare.

“Just by looking at the profile photos of the frequent patrons for each location, observers were able to assess the personality the typical patron (e.g., extraverted, likeable, narcissistic), the activities likely to occur at the establishment (e.g., drinking, surfing the web, flirting), and the atmosphere or "vibe" of the location itself (e.g., sophisticated, clean, kitsch-y),” they said.

The researchers then sent another group of observers to the same locations to make similar assessments of the subject, and discovered that there was, in Graham´s words “quite a bit of overlap“¦ Impressions were consistent no matter what type of stimuli an observer sees — suggesting there is some cohesion in the types of people who go to certain places and the places themselves.”