The influence of the smartphone: Part 5

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Smartphones are changing the cultural influences on children’s development. In part five of her six-part series, Dr Stephanie Thornton considers the links between smartphone use and anti-social behaviour

Among the many worries associated with the explosion of teenage mobile or smartphone use is the fear that this technology will foster anti-social and damaging behaviour of one sort or another.

We have known for a long time that people find it easier to make personal disclosures and tend to be more blunt, aggressive, impulsive, intense, and even more anti-social online than in everyday life (Suler, 2004).

Online interactions somehow feel more anonymous, one’s identity more invisible, leading to a more disinhibited style of responding than we would engage face-to-face.

Teenagers are just as prone as adults to this “online disinhibition effect”. They may be more vulnerable to the risks this can create: adolescents are less aware of the potential consequences of ill-advised revelations or anti-social texts, posts or tweets, less aware that these indiscretions can haunt them for years, or even for decades.

A recent survey by the charity Ditch the Label (2017) also suggests that nearly half of all teenagers think online exchanges are somehow “not real-life”, so without the same moral or practical consequences as actions offline. These factors might well make anti-social behaviour easier online than in “real life”.

But what role does mobile phone technology actually play in problem behaviours? Does the online disinhibition effect lure adolescents into damaging and destructive behaviour? Does it release anti-social or delinquent behaviour, for example, or generate new problems such as cyber-bullying or sexting?

Lurid headlines in the popular media certainly suggest that smartphone use is creating a far darker, unhappier, more anti-social world for our young. However, the research paints a somewhat more nuanced picture.

Recent statements from the police blame social media for adolescent delinquency and violence. And indeed, research shows that adolescents who discuss rule-breaking and other kinds of delinquent or violent behaviour on social media and in texts do tend to show an increase in anti-social behaviours and aggression over the course of a year (Ehrenreich et al, 2014).

Such discussions may provide others with “how to do it” advice on delinquency, perhaps making those behaviours appear more normal and acceptable among a peer group, and so easier to enact.

It is also likely that the tendency to boast of, or even exaggerate, rule-breaking behaviour can create peer pressure that fosters delinquent identities. However, the research shows that while online expressions of positive attitudes to rule-breaking and delinquency may support such behaviours, there is no evidence that the tendency to behave badly is initiated by those online interactions.

Online behaviour and attitudes are typically very consistent with offline behaviours and attitudes (George & Odgers, 2015). The suggestion is that smartphones offer a tool to serve pre-existing dispositions in the already delinquent, rather than creating delinquency. That is an issue for the authorities to handle.

A similar conclusion comes from the research on cyber-bullying. The popular press represents cyber-bullying as a new horror spawned by the connectivity of the mobile phone, exposing all our young to the risk of being bullied as they would not have been in the past. But fears that the smartphone has broadened the scale of bullying are wrong. In fact, cyber-bullying creates very few new victims: 96 per cent of the victims of cyber-bullying are also being bullied, by the same oppressors, in face-to-face ways (Wolke et al, 2017). Again, it seems that the connectivity of the mobile phone is primarily offering a tool to supplement traditional forms of bullying rather than expanding the range of harassment.

Bullying is a real and horrible problem in our schools. Shockingly, it is the most vulnerable in our classrooms who are most often targeted for bullying – those with physical and learning disabilities, the LGBT, immigrants...

And predictably, it is individuals who are themselves feeling vulnerable in stressful and difficult circumstances who feel the need to bully. Overall, 29 per cent of teenagers report being bullied (Wolke et al 2017), almost all face-to-face, some of whom are also pursued online by their persecutors.

All forms of bullying affect victim’s lives in the same way, undermining their confidence, their success in engaging everyday life, creating low self-esteem and depression, even suicidal feelings. Cyber-bullying may seldom create new victims, but it certainly adds a more damaging dimension to traditional bullying. You can walk away from a face-to-face bully, go home, be safe alone in your room. Not so, when the bullying “goes cyber”: now, nowhere is safe.

And worse: where face-to-face bullying is generally observed by only a few and the event is transient, cyber-bully shaming on social media is very public and the record stays and stays.

Another area of concern is “sexting”. The tendency to send sexually explicit photos increases with age, being double at 15 what it was at 11. Roughly 15 per cent of teenagers send, and 25 per cent receive sexts. A major review (Madigan et al, 2018) shows that boys and girls are equally likely to sext, but the mood music is different. Boys, it seems, see sexting as a way to showcase their social status. Girls feel more anxiety: if I do, am I a slut? If I don’t, am I a prude?

While the adult world views sexting with alarm, there is as yet little or no evidence that the habit is intrinsically harmful (Madigan et al, 2018). In the main, teenagers sext as a form of flirting, or to make a romantic connection or foster intimacy with a partner.

It may be that sexting is just a normal component of sexual behaviour in the digital generation. Where things go wrong is when individuals are bullied into sexting, or where sexts are forwarded to others without consent – alas, not a rare event. This violation of privacy can lead to bullying and serious distress.

Practical issues

What, if anything, should we be doing about cyber-bullying or sexting?

  • Expert advice is that cyber-bullying is so strongly connected to traditional face-to-face bullying that the two should be addressed together. Although bullying is generally kept away from adult eyes, in the vast majority of cases peers will know it is happening. Generally, observers do nothing to stop a bully. However, a school culture of zero tolerance for bullying, where reporting such behaviour whether online or offline is normative, and intervention immediate, can go a long way to addressing this problem (Cortes & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2014). A school culture where difference is understood and accepted can reduce the tendency for the vulnerable to be bullied. Simply helping bullies to understand just how wounding their behaviour is can reduce their tendency to attack. And always, it is worth considering what personal problems may be motivating the bully to bully, and intervening to offer support in addressing those problems.
  • Sexting presents a more complex problem, since there is no evidence that the habit is intrinsically harmful. However, there are complex issues here, which the young may well not understand. It is one thing to send a sexy picture to your partner – but once that is done, you have lost control of what happens to that picture next. What when that relationship ends, particularly if it ends badly? The young need to be encouraged to think through such issues. And then, they may not realise that texting, and even receiving sexually explicit material can be illegal, and may sometimes result in police action. In particular, forwarding such material without consent may cross boundaries. Frank discussion of these issues can protect the young from innocent errors of judgement. In the end, expert advice is to teach them never to text any material that they would not be happy for everyone in their school and family to see.
  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist and former lecturer in psychology and child development. To read Dr Thornton’s previous articles in SecEd, go to The final article in this series is due to publish on July 5.


  • To tell or not to tell: What influences children’s decisions to report bullying to their teachers? Cortes & Kochenderfer-Ladd, 2014, School Psychology Quarterly:
  • Adolescent’s text message communication and growth in antisocial behaviour across the first year of high school, Ehrenreich, Underwood & Ackerman, February 2014, Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, Vol 42, Iss 2
  • Seven fears and the science of how mobile technologies may be influencing adolescents in the digital age, George & Odgers, November 2015, Perspectives on Psychological Science:
  • Prevalence of multiple forms of sexting behavior among youth: A systematic review and meta-analysis, Madigan, Ly, Rash, Van Ouytsel & Temple, February 2018, JAMA Pediatrics:
  • The online disinhibition effect, Suler, 2004, CyberPsychology Behaviour, Vol 7, No 3.
  • The Annual Bullying Survey, Ditch the Label, 2017:
  • Cyberbullying: A storm in a teacup? Wolke, Lee & Guy, 2017, European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, Vol 26, Iss 8.


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