Young children know that name-calling is wrong. Tweens are taught the perils of online bullying and revenge porn. But celebrities who engage in flagrant attacks on social media are rewarded with worldwide attention.
US President Donald Trump’s most popular tweet to date is a video that shows him fake-pummelling a personification of CNN. Reality TV star Rob Kardashian was trending last week after attacking his former fiancee on Instagram in a flurry of posts so explicit his account was shut down. He continued the attacks on Twitter, where he has more than 7.6 million followers.
While public interest in bad behaviour is nothing new, social media has created a vast new venue for incivility to be expressed, witnessed and shared. And experts say it’s affecting social interactions in real life.
“Over time, the attitudes and behaviours that we are concerned with right now in social media will bleed out into the physical world,” Karen North, a psychologist and director of the University of Southern California’s Digital Social Media Program said.
“We’re supposed to learn to be polite and civil in society. But what we have right now is a situation where a number of role models are acting the opposite of that … And by watching it, we vicariously feel it, and our own attitudes and behaviours change as a result.”
Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist and author of “The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age,” said she’s already seeing the effects.
She said she’s been confronted by students across the US asking why celebrities and political leaders are allowed to engage in name-calling and other activities for which they would be punished.
On some school campuses, “Trumping” means to grab a girl’s rear end, she said.
And teenagers have killed themselves over the kind of shaming and exposure of private images Kardashian levelled at Blac Chyna, with whom he has an infant daughter.
On Monday, a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner granted a temporary restraining order against Kardashian, barring him from contacting Chyna, coming within 91 metres or her home or workplace and posting any images of her online. He is also prohibited from sharing images of their daughter.
“We are normalising behaviours, and it’s affecting some kids,” Steiner-Adair said. “And what’s affecting kids that is profound is their mistrust of grown-ups who are behaving so badly. Why aren’t they stopping this?”
Social media satisfies a human need for connection. Users bond over common interests and establish digital relationships with their favourite public figures, following and commenting on their lives just like they do their friends’.
Having a common enemy is “one of the strongest bonding factors in human nature,” North said.
Trump’s attack tweets have proven his most popular, according to a new study by Lehigh University Professor Jayeon Lee.
“Whenever Trump criticised or mocked the media, the message was more likely to be retweeted and ‘favourited,” Lee said.