Parents: Cultivate Digital Resilience!

October 5, 2021

We define digital resilience as “positive attitudes and actions in the face of interpersonal adversity online.” While adversity can arise from technological sources as well (e.g., hard drive crashes, forgotten passwords, vulnerable cloud accounts), we are primarily concerned with the social aspect of online interactions that induce anger, frustration, anxiety, fear, embarrassment, and similar outcomes.

Digital resilience is something that I’ve been thinking about for a few years, especially in the context of finding an answer to what social media companies can do to reduce the effects of toxicity and cyberbullying on their apps. (Before I continue though – a brief caveat: I don’t like slapping the word “digital” on various concepts, as we need to focus on “citizenship” and“civility” and “literacy” and “resilience” in all spheres of life, not just online. But we’re finding something unique here – which I’ll explain below.)

We define digital resilience as “positive attitudes and actions in the face of interpersonal adversity online.”

In 2017, Justin and I published a paper on (traditional) resilience, defined as “the capacity to spring back, rebound, successfully adapt in the face of adversity, and develop social and academic competence despite exposure to severe stress…or simply the stress of today’s world.” In this research, we found that the lower students scored on their level of resilience, the more likely they were to:

- be significantly negatively impacted at school by bullying

- be significantly negatively impacted by cyberbullying

- get sad, angry, frustrated, fearful, or embarrassed as a result of bullying

- suffer silently and do nothing to improve their situation when bullied

However, we think there may be something qualitatively different about resilience online when compared to resilience offline. Perhaps a parallel can be drawn to the concept of road rage, which is a type of intermittent explosive disorder that occurs within a unique environment (in a vehicle, while driving). That is, you have an irrational, affective response that hijacks any rational, cognitive response you might want to have. Basically, heavy, negative emotions take over and you internalize and externalize in maladaptive and even harmful ways –harmful to yourself, and harmful towards others.

And bam: you have road rage.

This begs the question: Is the Internet, social media, and video gaming a similarly unique environment in which these heavy negative emotions take over, affect you deeply, and contribute to impulsive maladaptive and harmful coping?

If so, how can we encourage healthier and more productive overcoming instead when faced with various forms of online adversity?

Digital Resilience Measures

With this in mind, Justin W. Patchin (my research partner) and I came up with four new measures that assess one’s level of “digital resilience,” and included them in our most recent survey of teens:

- When someone says something hurtful to me online, I can easily laugh it off.

- I am easily frustrated when communicating with people online.

- I find myself responding quickly to emails, text messages, or online posts that make me

- When I have a bad experience online, it sticks with me for a long time.

We then measured these against the amount of harm a target felt or experienced from cyberbullying.

Among the middle and high schoolers who had been cyberbullied, those who scored in the top 25% on digital resilience were significantly less hurt and bothered by the cyberbullying experience. In addition, those with average resilience fared significantly better than those with the lowest levels of resilience when it came to how much a student was negatively affected by cyberbullying.  

Among the middle and high schoolers who had been cyberbullied, those who scored in the top 25% on digital resilience were significantly less hurt and bothered by the cyberbullying experience.

Practical Implications to Promote Digital Resilience

So what does this mean? How can this translate into what parents and caregivers can do? Here are some ideas:

Resilience-themed messaging and campaigns

1. I would love to see parents and caregivers continue to remind their children to not let others ruin their online experience, to not give others power if they are being a troll or a jerk, and to remember their own agency and autonomy to control their audience and interactions within the app or platform they are using. To be sure, it’s often hard for children to receive words of wisdom from parents, but periodic, gentle, and noncritical reminders can help them refrain from “taking the bait” when others are pressing their emotional buttons. These can offer memorable advice that conveys sentiments like “Keep calm and don’t feed the trolls” and “Is it really worth arguing about that, with them?” and “Don’t let your emotions get the best of you” and “Don’t let anyone live rent-free in your head” and “if they’re toxic, it’s not worth it” and “kill ‘em with kindness.”

The bottom line is that these reminders can bring a child out of an emotional storm back into a place of rationality, calmness, and control.  

Counterspeech tactics

2. It may be time for parents and caretakers to intentionally equip users with points of counterspeech – which are tactics designed to counter hate speech or misinformation (instead of only censoring/blocking them). This way, youth will be proactively equipped to deal with online hate and abuse, rendering them more resilient when it happens. To promote resilience, parents and caretakers can remind them that:

- they should feel free to denounce hateful speech and actions, because no one deserves to be victimized

- they can counter any chilling effect that stems from targeted abuse on platforms by speaking up, so that their peers are emboldened to speak up and seek help when they fear or suffer abuse.

- they have the power to shape the climate of the app or platform they love through more intentional demonstrations of kindness, tolerance, mutual respect, and civility

- they should consider overtly supporting users of varying demographics and backgrounds through posts, comments, and actions that can build solidarity and community

- they can embrace some vulnerability if they feel confident enough to do so, as sharing stories of overcoming harassment can encourage and empower others to do the same

- they can use humor and memes can be useful in defusing online conflict, or at least to deflect and distract

Empowerment to raise awareness and change norms

3. Parents and caregivers should encourage particularly mature youth (e.g., those comfortable leading and being in the spotlight) to use the app or platform itself to draw attention to cyberbullying, abuse, xenophobia, and other forms of abuse, to educate others about the problematic user and action(s), and to change norms. Tagging problematic posts and comments with pointed hashtags can also be used to label and more widely publicize instances of hatred and abuse online – and should be employed so that those who cyberbully, troll, threaten, or otherwise harass are not left to operate in the shadows.

As is evident, parents clearly have a role to play in cultivating digital resilience in their children. For what it’s worth, we’ve also covered strategies to promote general resilience (when it comes to school-based bullying) in the past. For example, you can read how parents can build resilience with activities, movies, and books, and learn about applying the ABC (adversity, beliefs, consequences) model to grow in resilience. Continue to check out the Cyberbullying Research Center for additional actionable strategies and resources, and of course for numerous helpful resources to support you towards these ends.

Written by

Dr. Sameer Hinduja

Dr. Sameer Hinduja is a Professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Florida Atlantic University, Co-Director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, and Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard University. He is recognized internationally for his groundbreaking work on the subjects of cyberbullying and safe social media use, concerns that have paralleled the exponential growth in online communication by young people. He has written seven books, and his interdisciplinary research is widely published and cited in a number of peer-reviewed academic journals. As a noted speaker and expert on teens and social media use, Dr. Hinduja also trains students, educators, parents, mental health professionals, and other youth workers how to promote the positive use of technology. In addition, he is frequently asked to provide expert commentary by news organizations, and his work has been featured in venues that include CNN's Anderson Cooper 360, NPR's All Things Considered, the BBC, and The New York Times. He has received Auburn University's Global Anti-Bullying Hero Award, won Florida Atlantic University's Researcher of the Year award, presented on cyberbullying at a Congressional Briefing on Capitol Hill, testified in front of the Attorney General and the Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security, and served as a Fulbright Specialist Scholar at Dublin City University. Dr. Hinduja is also the Co-Founder and Co-Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Bullying Prevention, a new peer-reviewed journal from Springer. You can follow him on Twitter at @hinduja.