Kids, kindness and cruelty – and lots of time online

Mean behaviors may be common at social networking sites but young people report that many use their voices to interrupt online cruelty.

Many young people and adults are concerned about the presence and impacts of negative online behaviors, cyberbullying and cyber safety. These concerns about electronic aggression are understandable given the significant role of media in our daily lives.

Today’s young people are sometimes called “digital natives,” having been raised in a world immersed in digital technology. The amount of time they spend with these technologies can seem astounding. According to a 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation, youth ages 8 to 18 spend more than seven and a half hours a day seven days a week with various forms of media, including television, music, computers, video games, print and movies. When considering that young people often use more than one of these at a time, the study found that youth are packing in 10 hours and 45 minutes of media use each day – not counting time spent on the phone talking, sending text messages or sharing images!

With the growth of social networking sites over the past five years, these online spaces (such as Facebook, Twitter and Formspring) have become a considerable part of kids’ daily media diet. The good news is that many young people have reported that their peers are “mostly kind” to one another on networking sites. In a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, the majority of online teens also shared that they had positive interactions that made them feel both good about themselves and closer to others.

Negative online behaviors are common, however, with some involving extreme episodes of electronic aggression that have gained national attention. In the Pew study, 88 percent of the youth using social media reported witnessing online cruelty, and 15 percent reported that they’ve been targeted personally. But 84 percent said they had witnessed others telling the harassers to stop their cruel behaviors, and 79 percent said they had used their own voices to interrupt the mean behaviors – far more than the 21 percent who said they had joined in.

Young people also shared that they rely heavily on the adults in their lives – especially parents and teachers – to help them use the internet responsibly and safely. To be effective resources for youth, it’s important that adults have a good understanding of where and how often young people are “hanging out” online and the qualities of these cyber experiences.