Last updated May 29th 2017
Many parents are concerned about cyber-bullying on social media and in WhatsApp groups. But researchers claim that the popular texting app actually provides a more intimate forum than school for youths to communicate and openly express themselves.
According to Israel’s University of Haifa, class WhatsApp groups allow young people to express themselves in ways they cannot at school, helping them develop closer and more open relationships that allow them to express themselves in ways they couldn’t in the non-virtual domain.
The participants in the study described WhatsApp as “a place where there is respect for language and where all those involved share common terms and signs,” Dr. Arie Kizel, the author of the study, said. “The group chats are based on trust among the members of the group, and this enhances the possibility to be in contact.”
Young people across the world use the WhatsApp application as a means of interpersonal and group communication. Most of them spend many hours in this virtual world, particularly in the evening and at night when they are alone in their room. The study sought to examine the way young people experience this virtual space.
It included two groups of eight youths aged 16-17 and two groups of eight youths aged 14-15. The groups included equal numbers of boys and girls. The participants functioned as a philosophical inquiry group, a familiar method used around the world in which children and young people sit in a circle and engage in the philosophical analysis of text. In this study, the participants analyzed texts taken from the class WhatsApp group (their classmates agreed to this, and the texts appeared without identifying details).
The philosophical inquiry group examined the following questions: “What do you feel about the relationships that were created in the virtual domain?” “What did the group give you?” “What didn’t the group give you?” “How was this group different from groups that don’t operate online?”
“I expose myself more”
An analysis of the conversations shows that the participants in the study regarded the virtual domain as somewhere where they can have a special intimacy that is not possible in other domains, and that facilitates informal relationships. “On WhatsApp, I usually feel that I am not being judged, particularly because there isn’t any eye contact or physical contact, only words and signs. So I feel more intimacy and security. I expose myself more, but it isn’t embarrassing, maybe because I don’t see people’s physical reactions,” one participant in the study explained.
Another participant commented that the WhatsApp group she belongs to is mainly active late in the evening. “It’s more intimate and personal. Why? Because we usually hide things from the people we live with – our parents and siblings. The group is somewhere where I can write without anyone hearing me, so it’s intimate… I often go to sleep with the feeling that I had very close contact with my friends. It sounds strange, because I’m not actually with them, and yet I am.”
The young people perceive the WhatsApp group as a space that breaks down the hierarchical division created at school. As the study shows, the school domain often divides the class into fixed groups and friendships, created on the basis of socioeconomic status, common activities or study tracks, and so forth. The WhatsApp groups break down these divisions and make the class a single, homogeneous group.
Breaking down the walls
“In class, I don’t just walk up to everyone. I don’t feel I can do that. In class there are clearly-defined groups and sub-groups. There’s a clear order among the groups, and children very rarely move from one group to another. It’s been like that since we started studying together three years ago. In fact, within a few months of starting our studies, everyone already knew which group they were in and what their status was within the group… In the WhatsApp group, everyone can talk to everyone else. WhatsApp breaks down the walls we put up between us in class. The WhatsApp group is like a class team-building day,” one participant commented. He added: “You have the class, which is closed and fixed, with clear boundaries, and you have the WhatsApp group, which is a real home for me where everyone gets on great with each other.”
The study also found that the use of icons and emojis is richer than physical gestures. “When we’re at home, we can’t always be hugging and kissing, because it’s very intimate and exposes you to the other person. On WhatsApp, boys and girls use icons to indicate physical gestures we wouldn’t dare to use in everyday life… like hugs or kisses. This sign language is a quick one – you don’t think too much, you just pick an icon and that’s it. It’s spontaneous. I feel that I’m more direct,” commented one of the participants in the study.
The study shows that the virtual domain offers young people a chance to show intimacy in a setting beyond the classroom. Says Kizel: “The discussions enable the development of a social environment that is warm and human.”
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