Education for a Connected World: Online Relationships

Thousands of years of human social evolution have seen the human race evolve complex linguistic and physical systems to enable communication with each other: vocabulary; intonation; body language; facial expression; gestures; eye contact; skin flushing. And they differentiate across the planet according to culture, belief, experience and custom. 

These evolved, sometimes innate, finely tuned behaviours are capable of great nuance and meaning and are intended to add clarity and unambiguity to the complex relationships we share with everyone we meet.

The impact of technology on communication

And yet the last 10 years has seen technology rapidly evolve to offer unrivalled potential for us all to connect in powerful ways. It crosses geography, cultures and timezones and has become interwoven within the fabric of many people’s lives. 

What is the impact of this relatively new environment on how relationships are formed? How does it shape behaviour and the interactions that result? Are online relationships as valid and as nuanced as those we conduct within the physical world?

It is often argued that there is no difference between on and offline interaction; it’s life. The boundaries have blurred, particularly for the generation of children and young people and adults for whom online technology has always been there. However, there is evidence that the behavioural drivers for online relationships are different.  

The Disinhibition Effect

As far back as 2004, John Suler, Professor of Psychology at Rider University, published an article titled “The Online Disinhibition Effect," which analysed characteristics of internet interactions that contributed to this effect. He describes two main categories of behaviour that fall under the online disinhibition effect. These two categories are benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition.

Benign disinhibition describes behaviour in which people might self-disclose more on the internet than they would in real life, or go out of their way to help someone or show kindness. Toxic disinhibition describes behaviour that includes rude language, threats, and visiting places of pornography, crime, and violence on the internet–places the person might not go to in real life.

These behaviours are often driven by the particular nature of online communication: 

  • You don’t know me (dissociative anonymity)
  • You can’t see me (invisibility)
  • See you later! (synchronicity or atemporal commentary)
  • It’s all in my head; it’s not real! (solipsistic introjection)
  • It’s just a game! (dissociative imagination)
  • Your rules don’t apply here! (minimising status)

Whilst these factors can drive both positive and negative behaviour, they highlight the need to provide education, guidance and support that reflects children and young people’s experiences online. It should provide opportunities to discuss, explore and learn in a way that achieves outcomes that not only keep them safe from harm, but empowers them to flourish as online social individuals.

Online Relationships

UKCCIS has developed a strand of its global framework “Education for a Connected World” that focuses on Online Relationships. It explores how technology shapes communication styles and identifies strategies for positive relationships in online communities. Across each age group it offers opportunities to to discuss relationships and behaviours that may lead to harm and how positive online interaction can empower and amplify voice.

Early Years to 7 years old 

  • Ways technology can allow us to communicate with those we know
  • How we can begin to communicate with those we don’t know well
  • Ground rules for considerate and empathetic behaviours

7 to 11 years old

  • Explores trust and finding common links with others
  • More sophisticated ways of communication beyond verbal
  • Respect and Empathy
  • Making positive contributions and establishing collaborations
  • Identifying escalation and flashpoint
  • Strategies for supporting peers

11 to 14 years old

  • Negative and harmful communications and assessing risks (e.g. coercion, grooming)
  • Contributing positively to online debate, discussion or argument
  • Challenges raised by certain sexual behaviours online
  • Reporting and gaining support

14 to 18 years old

  • Positive contribution to diverse online communities
  • Identifying controlling behaviours online
  • UK Laws governing online behaviours and those of other countries
  • Freedom of expression versus legal accountability
  • Whistleblowing
  • Mobilising online community to amplify voice or achieve outcomes

SWGfL is currently in the process of developing supporting resource and content for each one of the 150 statements in the framework. These will be managed through a FREE online portal and available for any adult to use. 

In our next article in the Education for a Connected World series we will takes a deeper look at the third strand of the framework, Online Reputation.

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