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Social norming: SO key to online safety

I doubt the term “social norming” means much to most people, but it’s actually common practice in family life, at school, and on sports teams. It’s the cultural or behavioral norms we create to teach and model values and ethics for our children – showing up in statements like “we don’t say ‘hate’ in this family” or “we respect the other team.” Maybe because it’s so second-nature, we don’t often think about how powerful social norming can be on the online-safety front. But when the research shows that aggressive behavior online more than doubles the aggressor’s risk of being victimized, we need to take this point very seriously. In fact, we need to move past expecting adults to do the modeling to expecting all community members to do so, especially children – help them see that they are key to their own well-being as well as their community’s.

Professor and cyberbullying researcher Sameer Hinduja puts this in the school context: “How does this relate to reducing online harassment among elementary, middle, and high school students? Social norming has to do with modifying the environment, or culture within a school, so that appropriate behaviors are not only encouraged, but perceived widely to be the norm,” he writes in his blog.

The same goes for online community. Virtual worlds, multiplayer online games, and social network sites need to foster a culture of civil behavior and citizenship as a vital Net-safety feature of their communities. There has been discussion about the importance of “neighborhood policing” or community self-policing online as well as offline, and I agree. It’s vital, and many responsible sites and worlds act quickly on abuse reports. But they need to pair that with social norming to be both preventive and reactive, to provide more complete protection (I call this “the guild effect”).

However, as much as we may like it to be, changing the culture is not just up to sites and virtual worlds or schools. It can’t be. Because this is a user-driven media environment we’re all experiencing now, by definition it’s up to all of us, especially the users of a particular virtual world or social site (or classroom, family or neighborhood). So how do we start? As Hinduja puts it, “by focusing attention on the majority of youth who do utilize computers and cellphones in acceptable ways. If I told you that one in five teenagers are cyberbullied, you wouldn’t focus on spreading that fact around your student body. Rather, you would reframe and reconceptualize that research finding, and then create cool and relevant messaging strategies emphasizing that the vast majority of your students [and our children] are using Internet technologies with integrity, discretion, and wisdom, which would hopefully motivate or induce the remainder to get ‘on board.’ Ideally, the remainder would desire to fit in, would desire to be like everyone else, and would feel an informal compulsion to stop cyberbullying others and start doing the right thing.” If we’re worried about cyberbullying as a society, we need to get going on this! As Hinduja writes, “Spending too much time painting cyberbullying in alarmist colors may encourage more youth to act in similar ways, since those youth will perceive the act as ‘normal’ and that ‘everyone is doing it’.”

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