How do you prefer being insulted?

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This question sounds like a provocation, and that is precisely what it is. Nobody wants to be insulted in any manner –or hardly anyone. But when we ask teenagers in which environment insults are more harmful to them, or in which environment they consider them to be worse, their answers give rise to an intense discussion. Nevertheless, when this same question is posed to adults, the outcome is very different.

During the year 2013 we have been working on this topic in the meetings held by PROTEGELES with members of the Pan-European Youth Panels. 40% of minors consider that face-to-face insults are more harmful.

This is pretty striking, especially taking into account that when ADULTS are asked that question, only 12% of them agree and say that face-to-face insults are more harmful. 7% say that there is not a big difference and 81% are convinced that insults and attacks via the Internet are more harmful than those suffered face to face.

Those ADULTS who consider that online insults are more serious point out that:

  • It is more difficult to protect oneself from insults and attacks on the Internet.
  • Insults on the Internet are usually public and have an impact on the victim’s online image or reputation.
  • Individuals who insult or attack online usually look for dissemination to try and get “allies” who will support them. They try to involve other people.
  • Insults may stay online for an unlimited time, even once the potential problem has been solved.
  • Insulting and attacking on the Internet is a calculated action. Individuals who do so are not just having a gut reaction on the spot. They have a specific goal, which may go far beyond simply letting steam off.
  • Insults on the Internet may be nearly anonymous, so it may be extremely difficult to discover who is using the Web to disseminate them.

ADULTS who consider face-to-face insults to be more serious note that:

  • Face-to-face insults usually imply a higher level of violence.
  • These insults also involve non verbal language. The threatening look, gesture or expression accompanying an insult may be much more harmful.
  • If insults are reported to the police, it is more difficult to produce evidence of a verbal aggression that has taken place face to face, especially if there are no witnesses.

MINORS who consider online insults to be more serious refer to much the same reasons. But there are two additional issues they are especially concerned about and which are not often mentioned by adults:

  • On the Internet a person may not know what other people say about him/her. Other people may see the comments while the person concerned may not know anything about them.
  • Online insults and verbal attacks may be misunderstood and may be perceived as more serious than they actually are.

Teenagers point out that, when joking with friends, they often insult and say “not very nice” things to each other. By looking at each other’s face they can interpret what their colleague’s intention is. But, on the Internet, without seeing the other person’s face and out of a clear context, words may be misunderstood.

MINORS who think face-to-face insults or attacks are more harmful note that:

  • Face-to-face insults may be the warm-up for a physical aggression. Depending on how one reacts and of what happens next, the situation may end up becoming a lot worse or in a more “harmful” way.
  • The look, the gestures and the tone of voice of the person who is insulting them has an emotional impact on them. They affirm that, in a face-to-face verbal aggression, “the feeling of fear is much more difficult to forget”.

It seems that minors attach more importance than adults to face-to-face conflicts. They care less about what happens on the Web and, therefore, they are not very aware of the implications online events have on the “real” world. We could then come to the conclusion that minors attach less importance to their “online reputation”.

But in fact, this conclusion, the perfect one for technophobes, is absolutely FALSE.

As I explain in the entry of my blog “Do minors care about their online reputation?”, concluding that children and teenagers do not care about what they post on the Internet or about what other people think about them is unacceptable. Minors care more than adults about what their peers think about them, as well as about what is posted about them online. This is a fact, not open to discussion, as it has already been confirmed –and I explain this in that entry.

But then, if minors care about what others say about them on the Internet even more than adults do, how come nearly half of them attach more importance to a face-to-face insult or verbal aggression? Especially if we take into account that they are aware of the fact that it is more difficult to eliminate those insults on the Internet, that they may be public, that third persons may participate, that it is more difficult to obtain evidence of face-to-face insults, etc…

When we talk to them, raising these issues and listening to what they say, the answer comes up to the surface. It is a combination of the two factors I mentioned above: the fear to a physical aggression and the emotional impact caused by the aggressor’s non verbal language.

And so it is. In an adult setting it is not likely to undergo a physical confrontation after a discussion, in the office, for example. In adult working settings everything is verbal. Nevertheless, in minors’ “working” settings that is not the case. In primary and secondary schools physical aggressions do take place. It is true that most of them are low-intensity aggressions, and that they do not usually become known and are not communicated to adults. But there is a higher probability of getting involved in a fight and of being physically assaulted by others at school than in an office full of adults. Furthermore, it must be taken into account that most children show a low pain threshold. Their short life experience and their lack of resources to face pain imply they suffer more intensively from pain.

In the same way, being insulted or threatened in the presence of their aggressor or aggressors has an important emotional impact on children and teenagers. It leaves a mark on them. Real violence has an impact on them, and even more when it is violence against them.

As a conclusion, we must point out that digital natives are very sensitive to everything that is said about them, both online and offline. But many of them (about 40%) attach a greater importance to face-to-face verbal aggressions than to “online” aggressions, because of the true possibility of suffering also a physical aggression and experiencing pain. As a person becomes older, the possibility of being physically assaulted in their studying or working setting decreases. Insults and disqualifications stop being directly associated to physical violence and pain. All the attention is focused on words and their means of dissemination. It should NEVER be concluded that minors care less about their online reputation. There is simply something they are more afraid of during the school years, and rightly, as the possibilities of being physically assaulted during those years are truly higher.

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