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Adolescents who feel heard are less angry in online games

How do young people react when an unknown person gets under their skin in an online game? A sense of control over their social environment can prevent young people from quickly resorting to anger in such a situation, development psychologists Sheida Novin, Carolien Rieffe and colleagues discovered. Publication in Infant and Child Development.

Young people have more and more contact via online platforms, including with people they have never met. Online games are very often played with strangers. How do young people react when a conflict arises in such a situation? That is what Leiden University professor of Developmental Psychology Carolien Rieffe and her colleague Sheida Novin (now Utrecht University) wanted to know. They conducted an experiment in which they had adolescents play an online game, supposedly together with an unknown peer.

Provoked by peers

The adolescents thought that they were gaming with someone, however, the actions of the other person were pre-programmed by the researchers. Novin: 'In the game, the two players had to work together to collect as much money as possible. At first it went well, but during the second round of the game the other person started acting annoyingly. For example, by saying things like ‘Hurry up, you’re moving like a snail’ or ‘It’s really annoying that you’re ruining the game.’

Control over the world around you

As expected, all the adolescents became irritated by the provocations of their unknown teammate. But that did not apply to all young people to the same extent. Through questionnaires, the researchers had already learned a few things about what the test subjects’ lives were like. It turned out that young people with a strong sense of cohesion - a sense of control over the social environment around them - reacted less angrily to those who provoked them. That is interesting, Rieffe says: ‘Everyone gets angry, but the young people who really hit back are especially those who are self-assured, but do not feel they have much to contribute.’

Being heard is important 

How can that be explained? According to the researchers, this study shows how important it is that everyone feels accepted at school, at work and in society as a whole. Rieffe: ‘The feeling that you are being heard is of great importance: that you are not just a spectator, but also have control over your environment. The young people who experience that, appear to have less of a tendency to have to prove themselves right to those who provoke them.’

Moroccan-Dutch youths

Novin: ‘The research was actually mainly designed to compare the reactions of Dutch and Moroccan-Dutch teenagers, but there appeared to be little difference between them.’ Only the Moroccan-Dutch adolescents with a lot of self-assuredness reacted slightly more angrily than average. According to the researchers, this may be because these young people feel more strongly that they have to stand up for themselves, more than their peers who do not have a Moroccan background.

Infant and Child Development

Adolescents' responses to online peer conflict: How self-evaluation and ethnicity matter, Sheida Novin, Marieke Bos, Claire Stevenson, Carolien Rieffe.