If you want to be part of the online world, you need a thick skin. 

Or so it often feels to those of us who share our words, ideas, or images online. In my fourteen years as a blogger, I’ve been called condescending, a shill for Facebook, and a f**ing idiot.  In private emails I’ve been called—or occasionally said—even worse. 

That’s because the rapid speed and anonymity of online conversation, combined with the lack of body language and visual cues, often leads us to speak carelessly or to read ill-intent where none exists. And that’s before we even get to trolls and cyber-bullies: people who deliberately or systematically seek out other people online in order to criticize, hurt or anger them.

In the spirit of fighting fire with fire, we often look to technology to save us from the problems technology has created. Thus we now see the proliferation of anti-trolling or anti-bullying tools, ranging from Zero Trollerance (which tries to flag Twitter trolls) to ReThink (aimed at cyberbullying).

I am the last person to eschew technological solutions, but in this particular case, technology isn’t going to get us where we need to go. As with any effort to curb bad online behavior through technology, we can look forward to a series of moves and counter-moves: we can and should develop tools to flag trolling, threatening or bullying, but we need to recognize that motivated haters will develop their own ways of evading those tools. Even more troubling, the more aggressively we patrol online hate speech, the more trouble we will have protecting online freedom of speech, too.

That’s why we need to look beyond technology and consider social solutions: in particular, teaching today’s kids (and tomorrow’s online citizens) how to engage and disagree constructively online. The good news is that parents and educators can help kids develop the crucial capacity to disagree online by borrowing from what we know about how kids have successfully learned to navigate offline conflict.

We can start that work by recognizing that disagreement is not only inevitable, but desirable—if we know how to work with and learn from it. Rather than encouraging kids to live in an echo chamber of like-minded online friends, or to shrink from online disagreement, we need to teach them how to disagree respectfully.

 A study of third and fourth-graders suggests that the best way to do that is by starting with disagreement among friends.  When Nelson and Aboud studied disagreements between pairs of children, they found that “children received from their friends more explanations of the friend’s position and more critical evaluations.” And compared with disagreements among non friends, disagreements among friends were more likely to lead friends to change their position. The authors cite this as an explanation for why…

children with friends tend to have higher levels of altruism and morality than children without friends….One explanation is that socially developed children make better friends. The reverse is also true…Conflict and discussion with a friend promote more mature judgment.

The implication for the online world is that rather than letting kids make friends online, they need to take friends online: that is, take their existing offline friendships into the online world, and explore the dynamics and challenges of disagreement within the context of relationships in which they are already invested.

Of course, that strategy is only going to be effective if we also equip kids for managing those disagreements when they arise. A 1992 study reported success teaching kids to use drama, role-play or other movement to express the physical energy that often comes up in the early stages of conflict: we need to teach kids (and adults) to get up from the keyboard when they get mad, and go for a walk before responding. The same study found that kids engage in more constructive dialogue when they’ve helped to develop ground rules for the group: we may do a better job of socializing kids to engage constructively online if we introduce them to online conversation from within communities they help set up and manage.

But let’s get real: even if we equip our own kids with the skills to engage constructively online, they’re still going to encounter people who are…well, let’s just say, “less skilled.” So how do I teach my daughter to respond gracefully when someone calls her a “f**ing idiot”?? 

We might find inspiration in an experiment that showed success in teaching social skills to adults with developmental disabilities. Participants in the experiment were taught a ten-step method for accepting criticism, including “talk with a normal voice”, “respond with head nods” and “share ideas for changing.” If we translated that same ten-step guide into digital terms, we would have steps that both children and adults would do well to follow when they encounter dissent or criticism online: “type in sentence case (NOT ALL CAPS!!!”, “respond with a sign of acknowledgment, like ‘thanks for commenting,’” and “share ideas for how you might approach the subject differently in future, rather than just defending what you’ve posted.”

But perhaps the greatest lesson we can draw from research into offline social skills and conflict management is simply to acknowledge that social skills don’t occur spontaneously: they need to be cultivated and taught. We’ve had decades to investigate interpersonal dynamics in the offline world, and to experiment with different ways of managing conflict and teaching people to gracefully provide or receive criticism. And we’ve had millennia to develop and transmit the social norms that we developed even before the invention of social scientific research.

In contrast, we’ve had barely a decade to adjust to an online world in which confrontation and critique seem like the rule rather than the exception. If we can take the time to teach our kids an approach to the online world that extends what we already know about offline interaction, rather than looking for a miraculous technological fix, it may only be another decade before we see the emergence of a generation of digital citizens who are equipped to resist the digital trolls.

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Resources

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Child Development, 56.4 (1985): 1009–17
Society for Research in Child Development
The School Counselor , 39.4 (1992): 268–272
American School Counselor Association
Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities , 35.1 (2000): 16–24.
Division on Autism and Developmental Disabilities