A recent survey of teenagers and young adults suggests that they are more tolerant of offensive or pejorative terms in the online realm:
Jaded by the Internet free-for-all, teens and 20-somethings shrug off offensive words and name-calling that would probably appall their parents, teachers or bosses. And an Associated Press-MTV poll shows they don’t worry much about whether the things they tap into their cellphones and laptops could reach a wider audience and get them into trouble.
Seventy-one percent say people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person, and only about half say they are likely to ask someone using such language online to stop…
But young people who use racist or sexist language are probably offending more people than they realize, even in their own age range. The poll of 14- to 24-year-olds shows a significant minority are upset by some pejoratives, especially when they identify with the group being targeted…
But they mostly write off the slurs as jokes or attempts to act cool. Fifty-seven percent say “trying to be funny” is a big reason people use discriminatory language online. About half that many say a big reason is that people “really hold hateful feelings about the group.”…
It’s OK to use discriminatory language within their own circle of friends, 54 percent of young people say, because “I know we don’t mean it.” But if the question is put in a wider context, they lean the other way, saying 51-46 that such language is always wrong.
This would seem to corroborate ideas that anonymity online or comments sections free people up to say things that they wouldn’t say in real life. Perhaps this happens because there is no face-to-face interaction or it is harder to identify people or there are few repercussions. In the end, the sort of signs, verbal or non-verbal cues, that might stop people from saying these things near other people simply don’t exist online.
I would be interested to see more research about this “joking” and how young adults understand it. Humor can be one of the few areas in life where people can address controversial topics with lesser consequences. Of course, there are limits on what is acceptable but this can often vary by context, particularly in peer-driven settings like high school or college where being “cool” means everything. These young adults likely know this intuitively as they wouldn’t use the same terms around parents or adults. Are these young adults then more polite around authority figures and save it all up for online or are they more uncivil in general as some would argue?
For an important issue like racism, does this mean that many in the next generation think being or acting racist is okay as long as they are among friends but is not okay to exhibit in public settings? Is it okay to be racist as long as it is accompanied by a happy emoticon or a j/k?
Knowing that this is a common issue, what is the next step in cutting down on this offensive humor, like we are already seeing in many media sites’ comments sections? And who gets to do the policing – parents, schools, websites?