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The pros and cons of online anonymity

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AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

(Read caption) Children play on computers after eating a free lunch brought by the bus in Federal Way, Wash, July 15, 2013.

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Although anonymity has long been a source of safety, especially in political and human rights situations, it has been cited largely as a source of danger where teens and social media are concerned.

Ask.fm, a social media that allows anonymous posting, figured prominently in early coverage of UK teen Hannah Smith’s suicide, and US teen Hannah Anderson was using the site to answer questions about her ordeal just two days after being rescued, the Christian Science Monitor reported.

John LeBlanc, MD, author of a study about cyberbullying and suicide wrote that allowing anonymity “may encourage cyberbullying. It is difficult to prove a cause and effect relationship, but I believe there is little justification for anonymity.”

So we need to know more about the anonymity factor, but here are some things we do know already:

  • About 10 percent of teens engage in anonymous self-harassment. That’s a finding in a 2011-12 study by psychologist Elizabeth Englander at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Research Center. It’s an average, because she found a higher proportion of boys (13 percent) than girls (8 percent) engaging in it. “About half of these “digital self-harmers” had done this only once or very infrequently; the other half reported that they had cyberbullied themselves more regularly or had one, ongoing episode which lasted at least several months.”
  • Anonymous cruelty offline too. Technology is “not uniquely capable of enabling anonymous bullying; school environments can do so as well,” Harvard’s Berkman Center reported in its review of the bullying research this year. “In a national survey of over 1,000 12-17-year-olds, 12% who reported being bullied at school said they did not ‘know’ their bully, as did 22% of those who report being bullied on the way to and from school.”
  • Anonymity not that prevalent in cyberbullying. The Berkman lit review also referred to a survey of more than 1,400 12- to 17-year-olds showing that “73% of participants who were victims of cyberbullying knew the identity of their bully.” The context of what happens between people online is not really a Web site or app; it is everyday life – for young people, what’s going on socially at school.
  • Anonymity decreases as kids age upAnother study by Dr. Englander found that, in 3rd grade, 72 percent of cyberbullying victims said they didn’t know who the bully was, but the percentage went down to 64 percent by 5th grade, a trend that “continues through high school.”
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