Can Online Anonymity Be A Good Thing?

Jan 28, 2013
Originally published on January 29, 2013 12:08 pm

Tell Me More's "Social Me" series looks at how young people interact online — with a focus on online identities, privacy issues and breakthroughs in Internet-based learning.

Throughout the series, Rey Junco shares his research as a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He tells NPR's Michel Martin that there's more to online identities than the constant cycle of headlines about cyberbullying, "slut-shaming" and "catfishing."

Junco says that one big buzzword that's thrown around these days is "disinhibition." That means once you are behind a computer screen, you might feel more free to say or do things you'd normally feel inhibited about doing. He says it has to do with perception of anonymity.

But it's not all bad news. Junco's research has also shown that "online disinhibition can be a positive factor for online interactions."

Junco points to one prime example: shy students. They can make personal connections online that can translate to better communication offline, like in a classroom. This isn't new. Junco says he picked up on this dynamic "way, way back in the day when people used AOL Instant Messenger a lot."

Junco encouraged his students to contact him online if they had any questions about the class. He remembers one student "who was very shy, very reserved, very introverted in class.

"He would message me from time to time," Junco says, and then, over time, the student started bringing his questions into the classroom.

Junco's subsequent research has shown that this takes effect on a group level. "Students who we interact with on Twitter are much more engaged in the classroom," he says. "They're building more of a community in the classroom than students who aren't engaging that way through social media."

Of course, there are negatives to online identities, he says. Kids can be mean.

But kids have to be made aware that they're building a permanent record online that can come back to haunt them later in life. That's why, Junco says, it's crucial for adults to have the "digital footprint" conversation early on.

"People who are making evaluations of youth for jobs and for admissions to colleges didn't grow up in such a digitally enabled social milieu," says Junco. But he adds that — as a society — we shouldn't judge too harshly.

"They don't know any better," he says. "Think about all the mistakes you made."

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Now, we want to turn to a topic we've touched on before in various ways. Today, we begin a three-part series looking at how young people are interacting online. And let's just admit it. Often, when the subject comes up, it's in a negative way, focusing on online bullying or hacking or even the new phrase many of us just learned, catfishing, where someone lures someone into an online relationship under false pretenses.

But there's more to it than that. So we've decided to take a step back and, over the next three days, we are going to be focusing on social media and kids. It's a short series we are calling Social Me. We are going to look at the kinds of apps young people are buying and using, how they're developing online identities and how they're using social media for their own education.

We are going to start today with a look at online identities. Our guide for this series is Rey Junco. He is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Rey, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us once again.

REY JUNCO: Thanks, Michel. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: And, as I mentioned, we often hear about the negatives of online anonymity, but I understand that your research actually points to some positives, so why don't we start there?

JUNCO: Sure. When you hear about it in the media, you often hear about the online disinhibition effect, although most people don't call it that, which basically means that people perceive this level of anonymity because they're behind a computer screen, and it's often associated with cyber-bullying.

However, my research has shown that online disinhibition can be a positive factor for online interactions. So, for example, it allows introverted students to make interpersonal connections that they might not have made because of, you know, their shyness or the ways they interact in the offline world, and those online interactions translate to offline interactions.

MARTIN: Could you give an example of that? Because I think a lot of people have had the experience of maybe having some difficulty communicating with a teenager in their house and then when the student goes off to college, for example, and they find themselves emailing each other, things get easier, you know, somehow because you don't have all that face-to-face tension. Right?

So can you think of an example, just from your own experience teaching, where the kind of online interaction just made things easier for a student?

JUNCO: One example was when I first started teaching and way, way back in the day when people used AOL Instant Messenger a lot, I would put my AOL IM screen name on my syllabi, and I would let students know, if they had any questions about the class, that they could feel free and pop in to AOL IM and ask me questions.

And there was this one student who was very shy, very reserved, very introverted in class and then he would message me from time to time and just, you know, like a little message here or there, like basic questions about the course, not really anything about, you know, any kind of interpersonal interaction or anything like that.

And what I saw is that, over time, this same student then was able to bring questions into the class. And that was one of the early instances of me seeing that. And then, over time, not only did I see more examples of individual students, but I've conducted research where we've seen this at the group level.

So students who we interact with online, for instance, on Twitter, are much more engaged in a classroom and they're building more of a community in the classroom than students who aren't engaging that way through social media. And it's very clear and we have data to show that those online interactions lead to more positive classroom interactions.

MARTIN: Why is it, though, that so much of what we hear about the disinhibition, as you put it, of the online identity is so negative and hurtful? I mean, we hear about - you know, forgive me, parents, I'll just say it - slut-shaming. We hear about, you know, people using their online identities to pick on kids, around all kinds of things, especially bullying, posting, you know, just really hurtful things about each other online. Why is that so much what we hear about and why do they do it at all? Why do they do that at all?

JUNCO: I think the first part is we hear a lot more about that because - well, it's newsworthy. It's what people want to hear. It gets hits to websites. It gets viewership to news programs. It sells magazines, if people are still buying magazines.

MARTIN: OK. But, to be fair, Rey, the fact is kids have taken their own lives because of what they've experienced in this realm, so they're - you know...

JUNCO: Sure.

MARTIN: There have been really harmful consequences to kids - what they've experienced online, so I don't think - that's not made up, but...

JUNCO: Absolutely. I'm not trying to minimize that one bit. The other part of my answer is that kids can be mean. The teenage years are a very difficult time, developmentally. Teens are struggling with acceptance of themselves and often shaming and bullying others as a way to compare themselves to another and feel, quote, unquote, "better than." It can often sometimes be a way to fit in with their peers, as well, if that's a socially acceptable behavior in their peer group.

Teens don't have as strongly developed superegos as most adults - at least, we hope most adults - and they also reflect what they see in society.

MARTIN: I think a lot of parents, a lot of caregivers, a lot of teachers are really concerned that the things that kids are posting online will haunt them later on in their adult lives. I mean, do you think that that's true?

JUNCO: Absolutely. That's exactly where we are right now in our society because people who are making evaluations of youth for jobs and for admissions to colleges and for admissions to grad school didn't grow up in such a digitally-enabled social milieu. So I think it's very important for us to talk with our children about what they're posting online and for them to be aware of that. But I think it's also very important that, as a society, we think about how we want to treat those instances of things that youth may post because they don't know any better, or because it's a mistake.

I mean, think about all the mistakes you made and that you chalk up to developmental mistakes. Right? And you think back and you're like, wow, that was really embarrassing. And, hopefully, you learned something from that. But imagine if that same mistake was out there for anybody to see if they Googled your name. And so, if you have a name like Bob Smith, you're probably OK. But, if you have a name like Rey Junco, then that's going to pop up and that's going to stay with you forever.

MARTIN: Rey Junco is a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He joined us from WPSU at Penn State University.

Rey Junco, thank you so much for joining us.

JUNCO: You're welcome, Michel. Any time.

MARTIN: Please join us tomorrow, when Rey will be talking about a way to use the Internet to enhance your children's education. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.