07 January 2010

Sticks, stones and cyberspace: online behavior has real-life consequences

While many saw the possibilities and potential of the Internet as it gathered momentum in the early 1990s, I doubt that many people could have foreseen how ingrained it would become in people’s everyday lives.

While many aspects of these developments are positive, there is a downside to this blend of real and online living: it's easier than ever for people to be verbally abusive, saying things online that they might not say in a face-to-face conversation. Go to any online comment board for a story featuring the word “Obama,” Pelosi,” or “Palin,” and you’ll see what I mean. Within a few posts, the name calling starts, and 400 posts later, the message stream ends with "No, YOU’RE an idiot."

The problem doesn’t stop there. Online bullying has driven people to suicide – people like 13-year-old Megan Meier, who hanged herself after being told off by a neighbor pretending to be a boy who liked her on MySpace. When a 19-year-old Florida man who committed suicide in front of a live audience in 2008 relayed his intentions in an online forum hours before he committed the act, he was greeted with responses like, “You want to kill yourself? Do it, do the world a favor and stop wasting our time with your mindless self-pity.” He swallowed a fatal dose of pills as hundreds of people watched online.

Hundreds. Did any of them call the police? Did any of them think that this was something worth a second thought about?

Hours later, as police broke down the door to Abraham Biggs’ apartment, nearly 1,500 people were watching a video stream of the long-dead man's body. Biggs isn’t the first or the only person to have killed himself in front of Internet viewers and he won't be the last – but would people who wrote messages like the one above responded the same way if they’d seen Biggs about to jump off a bridge? I think not. So why write such statements? Has the line between fantasy and reality blurred to the point where we cheer people online to their deaths? And if so, why?

We can do and say things we might not get away with in real life because there aren't any apparent consequences on the Internet. The very nature of the technology fosters this disconnection between strangers, and makes such behavior possible. It illustrates one of the secondary findings from a series of experiments conducted in the 1960s by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram.

Milgram’s experiment focused on the willingness of subjects to obey authority figures who instructed them to administer electric shocks to a “learner,” who was in fact an actor who would plead with the test subject to stop and later pretended to die if the shocks continued.

It was easier for Milgram’s test subjects to shock the learned to “death” when that subject was hidden from their view – when all it took was the push of a button. In fact, the closer the learner was to the test subject, the more the test subjects resisted the command to carry out the shocks. Milgram's experiment didn't set out to prove it, but it illustrates that it is easier to hurt people when they the farther away from you – like on a computer screen.

The new world we have entered continues to amaze me. We have the ability to be in constant contact with the ones we love, to hear about things moments after they happen, and to enrich our lives with the goods and only a truly worldwide market can provide.

I'm not against the opportunities this technological revolution can provide – but it has made it easier to say and encourage previously unspeakable things. It's akin to being in a dark theatre watching something on stage. It's easy to should insults and heckle when you are in the dark. In the Internet's case, it's done behind a handle like "Wampa12" that reveals little, if anything, about the user, and thus guarantees this anonymity.

While technology has changed the way we interact, it hasn't changed who we are as humans or the realism of the emotions we feel. It is important, now more than ever, to remember that there is a human being on the receiving end of any message, despite how many digital walls stand between sending and recipient.

I'm tired of seeing the callousness, the hatred, and the gross insensitivity to anything close to civility. The old saying about sticks and stones was incorrect then, and it is incorrect now: words can hurt, and do. Use them wisely.

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