Celebrities behaving badly online is having an impact in real life

Last week, Rob Kardashian took to Instagram to attack his former fiancée Blac Chyna in a series of posts so graphic and unpleasant his account was allegedly suspended. His response? Switch platforms and continue his attack on Twitter in full view of his 7.6 million followers.

Rob has form in this area as he was also involved in a very public Twitter spat with his ex Rita Ora, accusing her of sleeping around while the couple were together.

But he’s by no means the only one. Azealia Banks was suspended from Twitter last May following a string of aggressive, homophobic tweets directed at Zayn Malik. In fact celebrity Twitters spats are a near daily occurance. Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj, Khloe Kardashian and Chloe Grace Moretz, Rihanna and Joan Rivers and on and on.

Heck even the President of the US isn’t exempt from behaving badly online. In fact Donald Trump’s most popular tweet to date is a video that shows him fake-pounding a personification of CNN.

OK so celebrities behaving badly is nothing new, but the way we learn about it is. Somehow social media has created a whole new platform for the naughtiness to be witnessed, shared and then interpreted in a series of funny memes.

But what effect is all this virtual naughtiness having in the real world? At home children are consistently told that calling people names is unacceptable. At school a verbal attack on a classmate would result in punishment, bullying is not tolerated. Online, however, celebrities who slam other celebrities are rewarded with a trending hashtag and global attention. Go figure.

Bad behaviour on social media is having an impact on behaviour in the real world [Photo: Pixabay via Pexels]
Bad behaviour on social media is having an impact on behaviour in the real world [Photo: Pixabay via Pexels]

According to some experts the results of this online bad behaviour is already being carried over into real life.

“Over time, the attitudes and behaviors that we are concerned with right now in social media will bleed out into the physical world,” Karen North, a psychologist and director of the University of Southern California’s Digital Social Media Program told Associated Press.

“We’re supposed to learn to be polite and civil in society. But what we have right now is a situation where a number of role models are acting the opposite of that … And by watching it, we vicariously feel it, and our own attitudes and behaviours change as a result.”

Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” believes the effects are already being witnessed.

The psychologist says many of her students are confused about why celebrities and politicians can engage in name-calling and other unacceptable behaviours on social media without the punishment they would ordinarily receive.

She sites the fact that on some schools the expression ‘Trumping’ is used to describe grabbing a girls’ bottom!

The problem is that when something is turned into funny meme it somehow diminishes the seriousness of the behaviour itself. Plus a retweet is almost a validation in itself. But shaming someone online in the way Rob Kardashian did to his former partner and mother of his child, is really no laughing matter.

“We are normalising behaviors, and it’s affecting some kids,” Steiner-Adair said. “And what’s affecting kids that is profound is their mistrust of grown-ups who are behaving so badly.”

So why don’t we just log off? Just like in real life when we see people arguing in the street, the lure of a public spat is all too strong. Gossiping about people is human nature, chuck in some collective disapproval and you begin to see why the pull of bad behaviour online is just so addictive.

But unlike in the real world, there are no social cues to let us know that the behaviour is unacceptable. When behaving badly in public, you can immediately see if you’ve overstepped the mark from the body language and tone of voice of the people around you. Online there are no such indicators.

Why is behaving badly online acceptable? [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]
Why is behaving badly online acceptable? [Photo: Unsplash via Pexels]

And there is a very real risk this cyber aggression could have an impact on our behaviour in the real world. Worryingly, previous studies indicate that young people who witness aggressive behaviour in adults will take on that behaviour themselves, and even expand on it.

Psychologist Karen North points to the famous “Bobo Doll Experiment”, which saw adults hit a doll in front of children. When exposed to the doll afterwards, children not only mimicked the adults and hit the doll but attacked it with weapons too.

So it seems we really need to consider how liking, re-tweeting and sharing antisocial posts on social media affect our own actions in real life, and perhaps more importantly the actions of our children.

“By not expressly rejecting cruel or hateful online behaviour we are creating a bystander culture where people thing this is funny,” concludes Steiner-Adair. “Behaving in this way, we are creating a very dangerous petri dish for massive cultural change.”

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