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Conversations with Felipe Soares: On the harmful effects of online anti-social activities among young adults.

A recent study in PLOS ONE by Felipe Bonow Soares and team from University of the Arts London revealed that young adults partake in online anti-social activities for enjoyment and societal endorsement, and those indulging in such behavior generally have reduced cognitive empathy. The increase in social media anti-social acts, like bullying, leads to mental strain, diminished online activity, and further isolation for the victims.

The study involved surveying 557 undergraduates from Toronto Metropolitan University from March 9 to April 18, 2022, focusing on their cyber-aggression involvement, victimization experiences, and personality traits. Out of these, 359 students were analyzed. The research identified three main factors linked to online anti-social acts: reward, recreation, and cognitive empathy.

The motives of reward and recreation suggest that young adults pursue these activities for pleasure and peer approval. The negative link with cognitive empathy indicates lower emotional understanding among perpetrators. The researchers recommend empathy-boosting strategies to counter cyber-aggression.

Felipe Soares took time to discuss his research with SCINQ.

Can you explain why some people engage in mean or harmful behavior online just for fun or to get attention, while others may do it out of anger or a desire for revenge? How does the reason behind their behavior affect how they behave online, and how does it vary among different groups like trolls, young offenders, bullies, and cyber-bullies?

While there are different motivations for people to engage in online anti-social behavior, in our study, we found that the main reasons why young adults do it is for fun and social approval. Studies that focused on children identified that revenge is often associated with anti-social behavior, as children tend to try and get back at their bullies. However, this association was not present amongst our population of university students. Overall, it shows that young adults are seeking some sort of reward or just taking an opportunity to have fun when engaging in online anti-social behavior.

The study found that people who enjoy being mean online or seek social approval through negative behavior tend to have a harder time understanding how others feel. Can you explain how this lack of understanding of others’ emotions contributes to their mean behavior online? And what does this mean for addressing and stopping cyber-bullying and other forms of online aggression?

These are separate factors that were found to be associated with a higher likelihood of being a cyber-aggressor. It does not necessarily mean that those who seek social approval or fun online also are less capable of understanding how others feel. Nevertheless, these three elements help us to understand why young adults engage in online anti-social behavior. As for the lack of cognitive empathy, that is, not understanding how others feel, we can say that it is likely that some people engage in online anti-social behavior because they do not know how their targets will feel. Working on interventions that increase people’s empathy could be a way to reduce the impact of anti-social behavior.

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Can you tell us what the study found about why young adults engage in mean or harmful behavior online? Specifically, what factors were identified that contribute to this behavior, and how do they relate to having fun, seeking rewards, and understanding others’ feelings?

We found three main elements that explain why young adults engage in anti-social behavior: reward, recreation and cognitive empathy. As I just mentioned, cognitive empathy means that cyber-aggressors are generally less capable of understanding how their targets feel. As for reward and recreation, they are both appetitive motivations, meaning that young adults actively seek thrilling experiences or some form of reward when engaging in online antisocial behavior. While recreation specifically refers to impulsive antisocial acts, reward is about more calculated and premeditated acts.

The research suggests that interventions that make people think about the negative impact of their mean online behavior on others could help reduce cyber-bullying. Can you give us examples of these interventions and strategies that could encourage empathy and discourage people from being mean online?

As we found that cognitive empathy was associated with cyber-aggression, we believe that making people think about their acts and how potential targets might feel could be a way to reduce the impact of online anti-social behavior. For example, a study on Twitter implemented a tool to identify potentially harmful messages and added friction before users could tweet the message, pointing to the users that the tweet could be offensive to some people and asking them to reconsider about posting it. This reduced the frequency users posted harmful messages and could be a strategy used by social media platforms.

The study also emphasizes the importance of having rules and guidelines on social media platforms to reduce mean behavior. Can you explain how making people pause and think before posting something mean and educating them about community norms can create a healthier online environment? What are some challenges and opportunities in implementing these strategies on larger social media platforms?

The test conducted on Twitter that I just mentioned is one example. Considering the advanced technology and infrastructure that is available for social media platforms, they could implement similar tools. Platforms already automatically identify potentially graphical videos, links to external websites containing debunked information and so on. Therefore, platforms could implement tools to add more friction and reduce the impact of harmful messages. Of course, it would not be a silver bullet, but it could at least reduce online anti-social behavior to some extent. 

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