Thursday, February 26, 2009

Trolls and thugs

Let's hear it for The Register, which for the second time this week is feeding me material on how evil the Internet is. And this time, it's proper Research.

The latest piece, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, shows a significant positive correlation between teenagers who make heavy use of the Internet, and those who show violent and aggressive behaviour in real life.

Now, anyone who's been online for more than half an hour must surely have noticed that there's a high proportion of jerks, and I've seen a great many explanations of this advanced over the years. Maybe it's harder to avoid such people online; maybe the anonymity of the 'net makes people more confident and less considerate; maybe it's because we're not accustomed to mixing with so many teenagers; maybe it's a small proportion of users making a large volume of noise; maybe it's simply the shared culture of a "place" with a population historically weighted towards adolescent males.

But this research suggests - although all of those things may still be true - it's not just a perception. There really is a higher concentration of yobs out here in cyberspace.

Media coverage of the finding is fairly clearly divided into two camps. In the blue corner, we have those such as FOX News, who have no reservations about citing the study as evidence that the Internet is turning our teens into sociopathic thugs. In the red corner, the likes of El Reg argue that causality could work the other way - it's possible that thuggish kids are simply more drawn to spend excessive amounts of time online. (To do it justice, FOX does acknowledge that possibility - but it's buried half-way down the story, while the opposite explanation is in the headline.)

Intuitively, to me, the second explanation looks likelier. Show a bully a medium in which they can inflict fear and offence with minimal risk, and my bet is they'll gravitate to it like the British government to a database. It'll fascinate them, seeing how much they can do, what they can get away with, until some idiot leaves it on a train...

The original paper preserves a studied neutrality on this point. But it does suggest that "preventive programs for aggressive behaviors should pay attention to Internet addiction among adolescents." Which just goes to show, it is possible to convert science into policy recommendations without, necessarily, getting into a shouting match about it.


Nodressrehearsal said...

I think you're right, vet - that the internet simply attracts bullies, it doesn't create them.

You present things so logically - I love reading your posts.

Ruby Apolline said...

I was just talking about this with a friend (a flesh friend) the other day in relating my own experiences with a certain writing website. I did not set out to intimidate anyone, yet I was told many times I was intimidating, arrogant and a bully. In truth, I receive the "intimidating" and "arrogant" monikers in flesh life too, although much less frequently.

I was surprised into some extremely childish or perhaps trollish activity on a few occasions and I'm still trying to figure out why. I'm convinced, with little data, that interacting electronically with adversaries or those who differ from oneself is much more difficult than doing so in person. I have no idea why things flare out of control so quickly. I wonder if it is because the Internet is a stripped down and therefore more intense method of communication. All you have is words--no facial expressions, body language or gestures--hyperreal, maybe, instead of just real?

Perhaps yobs are attracted to the Internet initially as we all are and then find it a useful place to be yobbish, given the absence of physical threat or any other limiting factors.

'Tis a mystery, but an interesting one.

vet said...

NDR - you're very kind. I love being gratuitously complimented.

Ruby, that's a very popular theory, and I'm sure there's a lot of truth in it. I too have engaged in quite unnecessary aggression, particularly when I was new to the net, but after a couple of years I think I learned to be "conservative in what I send, liberal in what I accept."

I've also seen cases where (I'm sure) people are far more prickly, as in sensitive, online than they are in person. Possibly because they're not getting the nice, unthreatening non-verbal cues from the other person that they look to for reassurance.

I can believe you could be combative, even perhaps "abrasive", in some circumstances, and people who don't enjoy arguing may find that intimidating. But I have trouble with the mental image of you physically threatening anyone. Though I'm open to correction...

Nodressrehearsal said...

I know for me, frustration on that no-longer-available writing site came when logic and reasoning and points-well-made had no bearing on the trollish behavior.

By the way vet, if you want (and it's not a problem for me either way) you can switch the link you're showing for me from the livejournal one to this blogger one. I'll be cross-posting most stuff.

Ruby Apolline said...

Just my little brother when we were kids. And it wasn't a threat, baby, it was a promise.

I do think there are other ways to bully and on very, very rare occasions (including on the aforementioned site) I've used what intellect, intuition and verbal skills I possess with the express intent of wounding. After the most recent episode (on said site), I felt very bad about it afterward so I've stopped.

Jantar said...

I'm afraid you're not attracting enough FOX fans...

I also think it's more logical to assume that it's a (fresh) cadaver attracting the hyenas type of thing.

Plus, we've been here so many times before. There have been Fox commentators ever since we climbed down those trees, warning us that this new idea or that new invention would be the end of civilisation as we know it.

In the more recent past, novels, movies, comic books and video games have all been named as things that were harmful to both individuals and our societies at large.
Now, it's computer games and the Internet that are under attack from these 'the end is neigh'-ers.

Nothing new there, in other words,

P.S.: Me, I abhor rudeness but I also have a low tolerance for willful idiots and I can become quite prickly when people don't even read/listen to the arguments of others. Some people are so in love with their own soap boxes that they might as well be buried inside them, for all the attention they pay to the rest of the world.
With these folks I've been known to be quite testy, I'm afraid - but I hope that I'm not delusional when I claim that I'm normally quite courteous.