Dr. Amori Mikami’s Q and A with ArtsWIRE: UBC psychologist explores what shapes our online behaviour

Amori Mikami is a Psychology professor specializing in social networking and children’s peer relationships. With online bullying cases on the rise, ArtsWIRE spoke to Mikami about how social media influences user interactions, who benefits most from social media, and where more research could be done in the psychology of social media.

ArtsWIRE: Social media bullying is becoming an increasingly prevalent issue, with several national cases resulting in suicide (Rehtaeh Parsons, Amanda Todd). Is the bully mentality more easily cultivated online? What can be done to curb the trend of online bullying?


Amori Mikami

Mikami: I’m not sure that the bully mentality is any different online relative to what’s been happening face-to-face for years. I’ve done a couple of different studies now, where I’ve looked at comparisons between teenagers’ offline behavior with their friends versus their online behavior. And what I found is that there are more similarities than differences. For the teenagers who tend to be socially competent and kind, you see the same tendencies come out online. By contrast, for teens who historically have relationships where there’s a lot of “we’re-friends-one-day-the-next-day-we’re-not” – we see that also play out in the online sphere. On Facebook, for example, these kinds of teens might interact through comments that are supposed to be funny, but are really kind of insulting.

So my suspicion is that it’s not the online media causing the bullying problem. It’s just the type of individuals, unfortunately. It doesn’t make what happened to people like Amanda Todd any less tragic. But when we talk about how to reduce bullying, we need to think about ways as a society to reduce bullying across all forms of interactions.

A lot of anti-bullying approaches are about talking to students about how to respect differences, how we should have empathy for others – and to be clear, I think those approaches should continue. But something we haven’t focused on enough is ways in which teachers or administrators can model tolerance and respect. If we can increase respect, tolerance, and inclusiveness, then that will reduce bullying in all places.

ArtsWIRE: Your colleague, Alfred Hermida, discusses “meformers” – people who love talking about themselves – in his new book, Tell Everyone: Why We Share and Why It Matters. Why is talking about oneself associated with feeling good? Are there any exceptions to this phenomenon when it comes to sharing on social media?

Mikami: When it comes to sharing on social media, we’ve found that it’s often extroverted people who will post a lot, whether it’s about hard times that they’re going through, or successes that they have. And what they get back in return is a lot of comments and support from friends.

However, I definitely don’t think that everyone likes talking about himself or herself. For a lot of people, it’s not talking about themselves that makes them feel good; it’s the reaction that they get from other people. There’s a feedback loop that individuals, particularly extroverted ones with good social networks, benefit from on social media.

Of course there are exceptions. I do know there’s research stating that for some people who feel socially anxious, connecting online can feel easier to them. They’re able to start being themselves sooner, because it’s a little bit more anonymous. And they have more time to think about what they’re going to say, as opposed to being put on the spot and having to do it face-to-face with somebody.

We also see – and this is usually among individuals who don’t have good social relationships to begin with – people who share on social media, but for whatever reason, are not getting helpful comments. Perhaps they overshare, or they put things in the wrong way. So I don’t think that sharing is always a really positive process.

ArtsWIRE: Where do you think more research could be done in the psychology of social media?

Mikami: One of the things about research is that it’s really slow. It takes a long time to do a study, and even longer to get it published and disseminated. And as we know, social media can change in what feels like an eye blink next to that. And because we’re always trying to play catch-up, the easiest way to do a study is to ask people to self-report on their experiences. But, there are some downsides to that type of data, because what we would be getting would be the participants’ own perceptions, and what they want to believe about themselves.

A better way to do research would be to observe participants’ behaviours on social media. The way my lab does it, for instance, is we have a Facebook account for research study, and we get participants’ consent to be part of the study. We send them a friend request from our study account, and then we’re able to see their Facebook page, and get the sort of information that I was telling you about earlier.

I’ve been studying Facebook for years, but of course I’m aware of people moving more into Instagram, especially teens and university-age students. The whole field is just starting to catch up on Facebook, and they haven’t even jumped into Instagram yet, or Tinder. So because of how long it takes research to catch up with what people are actually doing, there’s this huge backlog. And it probably also doesn’t help that a lot of times, the professors who would be in the position to do the research are older than the people who are using the social media.

This story was originally posted on ArtsWIRE.