Online ostracism affects young children differently from teenagers and adults

Social ostracism on a computer hurts, just like face-to-face rejection. That much we know from past studies using a game called ‘Cyberball’, in which players pass a virtual ball to eachother on-screen. For the first time, a new study has extended this line of research to children as young as eight. It finds that online ostracism hurts them too but in a different way from teenagers and adults.

A team led by Dominic Abrams invited 41 8- to 9-year-olds, 79 13- to 14-year-olds and 46 adults to play a version of Cyberball adapted so that it was suitable for young children. The participants were led to believe that they were playing a game of catch online with two other real people who were using computers located elsewhere, out of sight. The players all appeared onscreen as generic figures, with names underneath showing who is who. In reality the other players were computer controlled and the game was fixed so that on one of the three rounds played, the participant was ignored and left out by the other two players.

After each round, the participants rated their agreement with three statements regarding the game: ‘I felt good about myself’ (a measure of self-esteem); ‘I felt like the odd one out’ (a measure of belongingness); ‘I felt invisible’ (a measure of what the researchers called ‘meaningful existence’); and ‘I felt in charge during the game’ (a measure of control) . The participants also said how much they enjoyed playing, which was taken as a measure of mood.

The key finding is that being ostracised by other players had adverse effects for all age groups, but that the exact nature of these effects varied according to age group. That is, the young children particularly took a self-esteem hit whereas the adolescents mostly suffered a loss of belonging. The adults’ suffered across the board, except for their self-esteem, which was relatively unaffected. Finally, being ostracised had an adverse effect on participants’ mood in the same way regardless of age group. From an ethical point of view, the researchers said it was reassuring to note that a final game round, in which participants were not rejected, led to a complete restoration on all of the measures taken.

Abrams and his team believe their study has provided an important proof of principle – that Cyberball can be used with young children, and that future research can now explore in more detail the psychological effects of ostracism in early childhood and how these can be ameliorated. A major shortcoming of the study, acknowledged by the researchers, is the one-item measures used. ‘It would be ideal to have more extensive measures of the need threats, and to employ non-self-report measures,’ they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgAbrams, D., Weick, M., Thomas, D., Colbe, H., and Franklin, K. (2011). On-line ostracism affects children differently from adolescents and adults. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 29 (1), 110-123 DOI: 10.1348/026151010X494089

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.