How to track down the ‘fringe’ in your life

A new study by the University of Warwick has discovered that the ‘internet is where we belong’ and that it is a safe haven for the ‘bad’ and ‘dangerous’ to congregate. 

The research, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, analysed the behaviour of over 4,000 individuals who reported experiencing a ‘negative emotion’ on the internet, from bullying to hate speech.

The research found that those who experienced online harassment and threats to their privacy were the most likely to feel negative emotion and were more likely to engage in behaviours such as being aggressive and threatening, as well as using negative language.

The study found that individuals who used negative online language, were also more likely than those who used positive language to engage with those who reported being ‘bad’.

It also found that the majority of people who experienced an emotional response online were not ‘bad internet users’ as defined by the researchers.

However, there were a number of other ‘danger’ or ‘bad-behaviour’ types of people among the participants, who were identified by their negative online behaviours.

“What is clear from this study is that online social interaction is a dynamic space where we are exposed to and have access to diverse types of threats, negative emotions, and ‘bad behaviour’,” said Dr Andrew Coyle, an Assistant Professor in the School of Psychology at the University.

“There is a need for us to be aware of what is happening in the social space, and what is being said, as we interact online.”

Dr Coyle said the research highlights the need for greater understanding of the social context, and the role of internet and social media in this context.

“Understanding how these people are interacting and how we can best work with them is vital,” he said.

“Our work shows how the internet is where some of us belong, and we need to understand how these spaces are constructed and controlled.”

Professor Coyle believes that more research is needed to understand the characteristics of people’s online behaviours and how these behaviours are perceived by others.

“Online behaviour is not something that people can control, but we can control the way we respond to the feedback we receive,” he added. 

Dr Coothy added that he was surprised to find that online abuse was far more common among those who had experienced a negative emotion, such as online harassment, compared to those who did not experience any such reaction.

“The findings also show that some people may perceive negative online activity as an appropriate response to negative behaviour in the real world,” he explained.

“In fact, those who experience negative emotion on the web are more likely in many ways to be hostile towards others online.”

The University of Victoria’s Dr David Ritchie, who is also a researcher in the study, said the findings had some implications for understanding the role that online harassment plays in people’s lives.

“We need to recognise the potential harms of online harassment in our everyday interactions with others, and how to work to prevent the behaviour,” he told News24.

“More research is required into the role online harassment may play in online bullying, harassment, hate speech, and other forms of online abuse.”

It is important to recognise that the people who experience online harassment are not necessarily the people we might expect to engage negatively online, and that their negative experience could be an indicator of their actual mental health.

“The study, “The role of online behaviour on offline hostility and negative emotions: a theoretical and empirical analysis,” was co-authored by Dr Coyle and Dr Ritchie and was funded by the Australian Research Council and the Social Networking and Online Health Initiative.

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