Flaming & Blaming: Kids Communicating Online

NEW YORK: Jett Lucas, a 14-year-old friend, tells me the kids in his middle school send one another a steady stream of instant messages through the day. But there’s a problem.“Kids will say things to each other in their messages that are too embarrassing to say in person,” Jett tells me. “Then when they actually meet up, they are too shy to bring up what they said in the message. It makes things tense.”

Jett’s complaint seems to be part of a larger pattern plaguing the world of virtual communications, a problem recognized since the earliest days of the Internet: flaming, or sending a message that is taken as offensive, embarrassing or downright rude. The hallmark of the flame is precisely what Jett lamented:

thoughts expressed while sitting alone at the keyboard would be put more diplomatically — or go unmentioned — face to face.

Flaming has a technical name, the “online disinhibition effect,” which psychologists apply to the many ways people behave with less restraint in cyberspace.

In a 2004 article in the journal CyberPsychology & Behavior, John Suler, a psychologist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, suggested that several psychological factors lead to online disinhibition: the anonymity of a Web pseudonym; invisibility to others; the time lag between sending an e- mail message and getting feedback; the exaggerated sense of self from being alone; and the lack of any online authority figure.

Dr. Suler notes that disinhibition can be either benign — when a shy person feels free to open up online — or toxic, as in flaming.

…like small children, they commit mortifying social gaffes like kissing a complete stranger, blithely unaware that they are doing anything untoward. Socially artful responses emerge largely in the neural chatter between the orbitofrontal cortex and emotional centers like the amygdala that generate impulsivity. But the cortex needs social information — a change in tone of voice, say — to know how to select and channel our impulses. And in e-mail there are no channels for voice, facial expression or other cues from the person who will receive what we say. True, there are those cute, if somewhat lame, emoticons that cleverly arrange punctuation marks to signify an emotion. The e-mail equivalent of a mood ring, they surely lack the neural impact of an actual smile or frown. Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on.

Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way.

And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion more likely to fail. Our emotional impulses disinhibited, we type some infelicitous message and hit “send” before a more sober second thought leads us to hit “discard.” We flame.

One proposed solution to flaming is replacing typed messages with video. The assumption is that getting a message along with its emotional nuances might help us dampen the impulse to flame. All this reminds me of a poster on the wall of classrooms I once visited in New Haven, Connecticut, public schools. The poster, part of a program in social development that has lowered rates of violence in schools there, shows a stoplight. It says that when students feel upset, they should remember that the red light means to stop, calm down and think before they act. The yellow light prompts them to weigh a range of responses, and their consequences. The green light urges them to try the best response. (cont.)

Normal social restraints are weakened in cyberspace. – International Herald Tribune

Wow. W-O-W. That was FANTASTIC article. I pulled some of the more “science-specific” items out, simply because the terms were taking the eye-of-mordor off the general concept. Kids don’t understand kids (let alone THEMSELVES) when communiticating in such a removed format. This is just another reason why kids, tweens, teens need some sort of guidance online. When left to their own devices, they participate in situations that can be a liability– not only for the child, tween, teen, but for the company in which they find the tools to communicate.

Now, I DON’T mean for anyone to bubble wrap children. Figuring things out the hard way is what makes kids strong, so is exploration. All I am saying is: If you have a communication tool aimed towards the U18 set, you better be DAMN sure you’re ready for all that entails. Kids, even in the most innocent situations, can get into sticky situations.

So companies: Double check and make sure you’re happy with the way you’re engaging youth. If you’re prepared with eyes wide open, you’re going to be great.

So parents: Kids & Bikes, no matter how much you want to– you can’t hold onto their seat and guide them hands-on forever…. Make sure you’re comfortable with the amount of internet education your child has. Don’t ban you child from exploring society, just make sure they’re on the right path with excellent tools (safe web knowledge) at hand. And be prepared with eyes wide open.

p.s. I highlighted the “video” part because that is when it gets scary– considering how teens are using webcams at times, and some of the popular “bullying” senarios reported through youtube.  Then again, webcams have been great for kid empowerment through ME:TV on Nickelodeon (even with my split feelings on the show).

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