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Online ostracism damages children's self esteem

Research by psychologists at the University of Kent has revealed that online ostracism is a threat to children's self-esteem.

The study, the results of which are published today (22 March) in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, looked at how children, adolescents and adults react to being ostracised by other players during an online computer game. This is the first time the effect of online ostracism on children has been investigated.

The study was carried out by a team at the University's Centre for the Study of Group Processes and was led by Professor Dominic Abrams. Professor Abrams explained that research into cyber-bullying usually focuses on direct abuse and insults. 'However, a more indirect and perhaps common form of bullying is ostracism - when people are purposefully ignored by others,' he said. Professor Abrams also explained that 'online ostracism affects adults by threatening their basic needs for self-esteem, sense of belonging, sense of meaning and sense of control. We wanted to discover whether children and adolescents have similar reactions.'

Three groups of participants took part in the study: 41 eight and nine-year-old children, 79 thirteen and fourteen-year-olds and 46 twenty-year-old adults. All were asked to play a game of online 'cyberball' in which three online players - depicted on screen by their names - passed a ball to one another. In games where the participant was included, they threw and received the ball four times within the trial. However, in a game when they were ostracised they received the ball only twice at the start, and then the other two players continued to play only passing the ball between themselves.

After each game participants' basic needs were assessed, as well as how much they had enjoyed the game.

Professor Abrams said: 'For all age groups, online ostracism substantially threatened the four basic needs - esteem, belonging, meaning and control - and also lowered their mood, showing that social exclusion online is very powerful even among children.'

However, there were also differences between the three age groups in their responses to cyber-ostracism. Ostracism affected the self-esteem of the eight and nine-year-old children more than the other groups. This suggests that the adolescents and adults have developed better buffers against threats to self-esteem.

Among the thirteen to fourteen-year-olds ostracism had the largest effect on feelings of belonging, strongly suggesting that adolescents may place a higher value on inclusion in peer networks than do children or adults.

The good news is that the negative reactions were cancelled out when children were included in a later game. Professor Abrams added: 'Whereas adults might be quite skilled at finding a relationship in which to be included after having been ostracised, it could be a bigger challenge for children. This suggests that parents and schools need to be vigilant in case children in their care are experiencing sustained ostracism.'



Contact: mediaoffice@kent.ac.uk

Story published at 4:57pm 23 March 2010

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