Comments on social networks reinforce socialization during adolescence

A study looking at online behavior and evaluative comments made by teenageers concludes that while cybergossiping can lead to risky behavior such as cyberbullying, it also serves a valuable socializing function: Frontiers in Psychology

While gossip has a bad name, it can also unite a group. Image: Shutterstock

A new study analyzes little known information about cybergossiping among teenage high school students — and finds it’s not all negative.

— By the University of Cordoba

A study looking at online behavior and evaluative comments made by teenagers when they are gossiping concludes that while cybergossiping can lead to risky behavior such as cyberbullying, it also serves a valuable socializing function. Led by Professor Eva Romera from the University of Cordoba, Spain, and published in Frontiers in Psychology, the study also refutes the idea that females are bigger cybergossips than males.

Gossiping among friends is a kind of dialog considered fun and casual, and tends to be quite popular. While these kinds of conversations have a bad name, they happen in all cultures. But gossiping also has to be interpreted as a mechanism that unites the group, facilitates information transfer, strengthens bonds and influences the behavior of the group’s members.

Cybergossiping occurs when two or more people make evaluative comments on a digital device about a third person who is not present. This kind of online behavior is common among adolescents when they are instant messaging and on social networking sites. Cybergossiping directly impacts the group, and can both foster and damage the quality of the relationships among its members.

Scientific research thus far assessing the nature of this interactive behavior among teens has been limited — and is almost always focused on negative behavior, implying indirect assaults that are intentionally hurtful.

The new study turns the tables on this belief. Though the research does not rule out the fact that cybergossiping can lead to negative behavior (such as excluding someone from the group or harming their reputation), its “socializing function” also has to be valued.

Related: We’re not addicted to smartphones, we’re addicted to social interaction

According to Professor Romera, making evaluative comments online about somebody who is not present can have a positive influence among teens because it lets them “feel better, feel more integrated in the group, better understand what others think and learn more about the people around them.” Ultimately, cybergossiping should be interpreted in a broad sense of the word, in which besides being considered a risk, “it is a social learning mechanism” that fosters new ways of social interaction. Cybergossiping is a way to practice online communication skills, which are useful in building positive virtual relationships, because the complexity of this communication also usually includes critically reviewing and looking for ways to reconcile the contributions of each interlocutor.

The study, done in collaboration with Spain’s University of Seville and Colombia’s University of Nariño, carried out a thorough literature review on gossip and cybergossip. Then, a questionnaire was designed and validated, by interviewing 3,747 Spanish and Colombian secondary school students between 12 and 19 years of age. The final questionnaire consisted of nine questions, chosen from a much higher number by means of rigorous statistical analysis. Professor Romera says this method of self-report survey “allows for confidential responses regarding something linked to trust and discretion.”

The analyses point to the notion of cybergossiping being similar in both countries and that it is done at the same rate among males and females — thereby dismissing the idea that females are “bigger cybergossips” than males. A lower rate of cybergossiping among Colombian adolescents was detected in comparison to Spanish adolescents. The reasons for this last finding reside in the fact that, according to the study, in Colombia there is a greater tendency to abide by the rules and a lower rate of teenage social network use.

Another conclusion reached by the researchers is that cybergossip should be addressed in the classroom. Romera explains that the current educational system should include learning how to interact on social networking sites. Tools that can allow for healthy, quality virtual relationships should be offered and these tools would promote the learning of new ways to interact.

While the relation between cybergossiping and other kinds of risky behavior has been confirmed, the potential of cybergossiping should be considered when proposing educational ideas, and this potential should be researched further.

The article is part of a special research collection on the application of cognitive approaches to cybersecurity.

Original article: How Much Do Adolescents Cybergossip? Scale Development and Validation in Spain and Colombia

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