Young adults are dealing with a new stressor in their lives, social media. In addition to creating anxiety over how many likes one has, or public conflicts between people, cyberbullying also occurs. For sociologists, this phenomenon presents a new context for the social world, one which has different rules of interaction and outcomes. The social structure of the online world reflects the social structure of the physical world, but with more concrete interconnection that allow for more rapid distribution and spread of information. When that information negatively affects the social identity or position of a young adult this can be tragic, with consequences as serious as suicide.
Media Coverage of Cyber Bullying and Social Media Anxiety
The use of social media by young adults has been identified as problematic in the media, and the use of social media to cyberbully is usually prominently mentioned. The grip of social media covers more than just youth; however, youth are often the focus of concern regarding online activities. Given the widespread use of social media by this age group it is not a surprise that social media has become integrated with challenges for this age group. The phenomenon of cyberbullying parallels the bullying that has occurred since time immemorial, however the online platforms have a number of specific effects that were not as prominent before. While bullying occurred before the internet, it was focused on word of mouth and physical social networks. It was also possible for the incident to eventually be forgotten if no harm was done. Today comments, humiliating videos and even livestreaming can have impacts that go far beyond the moment and a person’s immediate social circle.
A recent example in the news is a video which was live streamed of an underage girl being sexually assaulted (KOAA News 5, 2017). The video went viral, and the police were called. The victims could be identified, and two suspects were arrested. Victims and their families described difficulties even having the video removed from Facebook, despite the content of it. The news article noted that people who shared or downloaded the video may face charges of child pornography. Despite the possible outcomes of such behavior, there are other devastating behaviors with further negative consequences for the victims. The comments on the video were derogatory towards the female victims, while others tried to find ways to profit from the video. The news article further referenced psychologists who stated that the aftermath of rape, especially cyberbullying and the public shaming aspect, is a second victimization which makes it very difficult to recover.
Macro Theoretical Perspectives (Functionalism)
From a functionalist perspective social media is very powerful in reinforcing social norms. The anxiety of social media use, and the constant checking of how well a post is doing or what others are doing on social media is part of that functionality. Cyberbullying is another form of shaming, which is also used to reinforce social norms. Because in the virtual world everything happens in real time, and it sometimes cannot be erased, it poses a great deal of pressure to comply with the perceived and sometimes distorted social norms which are presented by social media. Everyone wants to be seen in the best light on social media, and only posts the images and text that supports that. This leads individuals to believe that everyone else is having a better and more positive life that they are.
Macro Theoretical Perspectives (Conflict Theory)
A conflict theorist would explain social media anxiety and cyberbullying as a function of competition for a scarce resource- attention. While it seems that everyone spends all their time on their phones, in fact there is only limited attention available. That is why it is so important to someone that their Instagram photo gets likes. These represent positive attention, and the feedback leads the person to continue to seek positive feedback. Getting no feedback is negative, but negative feedback can be devastating. Peer pressure and social norms do not restrain people in the same way online as they do in real life. A conflict perspective may conclude that the issue is that online behavior and activity need the development of new, healthier social norms that serve to hold back such behavior.
Micro Theoretical Perspective (Interactionism)
Interactionism proposes that interaction between people shapes social norms and processes, and those norms and processes also shape human interaction. The driving force of interaction is the meaning from it. This has a lot of application when it comes to social media. Even activities or posts which seem to have one meaning, such as a vacation picture, are interpreted as having other meanings. In the case of a vacation picture, that might be meanings such as “I can afford a vacation”, or “I am having more fun that you”. Interactionism works on two levels in the case of social media use by youth in the media, because it describes that phenomenon as well as how we talk about it.
Felt (2015) notes that in media coverage in Canada, cyberbullying which has led to suicide is framed as a social problem. Further, there is a preference for ideal victims, and for this reason there are more female, rather than male victims in the media coverage (Felt, 2015).
Sociologists might do further research on this issue through a survey of youth. The survey could ask questions that help to determine the prevalence of cyber bullying and anxiety as well as whether there are factors that help to stop or prevent cyberbullying. A survey on cyberbullying could therefore focus on how bystanders contribute to cyberbullying, and what structures or social norms are involved in such behaviors.
All the theoretical perspectives can contribute to further research on cyberbullying and social media, Functionalism explains the critical concept of looking for how a phenomenon benefits the people who participate in it. The Conflict perspective provides insight into why and how we behave when we interact online, particularly regarding negative social behavior such as cyberbullying or the anxiety that can drive the social media use of some individuals. Interactionism is the most closely aligned with how social media works because it prioritized meaning exchange.
- Felt, J. M. W. (2015). Reification of the Teenage Victim: How Canadian News Frames Cyberbullying as a Social Problem (Doctoral dissertation, University of Calgary (Canada)).
- KOAA News 5. (2017). Cyberbullying intensifies impact of sexual assault video shared online. Retrieved from: http://www.koaa.com/story/35944999/cyberbullying-intensifies-impact-of-sexual-assault-video-shared-online