What are our Digital “Role Models” Modeling Online?

Dr. Sheri Bauman, Professor of Counseling, University of Arizona

The old adage, “Do as I say, not as I do” was never very effective at getting youth to obey a rule or change their behavior. Unfortunately, in the current digital universe, we see a great deal of adult behavior that we would prefer our youth not emulate. We see politicians attacking each other on social media, disgruntled fans saying derogatory things about celebrities and athletes, and strangers engaging in vicious ad-hominem rhetoric online over an inconsequential news story. Hardly a day passes that there is not a news item about an incident of online trolling that is so malicious that people must leave their own homes to ensure their safety (e.g., Christine Blasey Ford). Although the term cyberbullying is generally applied to children and adolescents, we know that cyberbullying occurs in workplaces and in governments. In fact, 41% of American adults have been harassed online and 18% have experienced severe forms of digital aggression (Duggan, 2017).

The Southern Poverty Law Center (2019) conducted an informal survey of K-12 teachers (n=2776) who described incidents of hate speech or bullying based on politics, religion, race, ethnicity, and gender or sexual identity. The respondents indicated that students were invoking the language used by Trump in his campaign and targeting and frightening peers who are members of the groups maligned by the campaign and post-election tweets. Huang and Cornell (2019) analyzed data collected from middle school students in Virginia in 2013, 2015, and 2017. After finding no differences in rates of victimization or hate-based victimization prior to the election, they found that students who resided in districts in which Trump won the majority of votes reported 18% more bullying in the previous year and 9% more hate-based victimization since the 2016 election.

Several theories are helpful for understanding the importance of adult behavior as models for young people. Social ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 2005) is widely cited as a framework for research on bullying. The theory is often depicted as a series of concentric circles, with the individual at the center, and each larger circle representing an influence that is slightly more distant from the individual. The outermost circle (which then influences all the interior ones) is the chronosystem, which includes not only one’s life stage, but the social-historical context. In the current historical era, digital communications permeate our lives, and the political context is one that, by exhibiting harmful and hurtful digital behavior (most of which is protected by our First Amendment), impacts the individual child and adolescent’s development.

Because social media are so widely used, and examples of adult digital aggression abound in these spaces, the social norms have been slowly altered. Social norming theory posits that humans behave in ways they believe is normative (common or usual) in the population. The more young people see digital aggression, the more normative – and therefore acceptable – it seems to be. Műller and Schwartz (2018) concluded that as a result of social media, social norms have changed so that prejudicial attitudes towards minorities that were previously not expressed due to social norms are now frequently articulated due to the changed social norms.

Social learning theory, articulated by Albert Bandura (1977) helps us understand why these actions by adults – often very prominent adults – influence young people and normalize a behavior that is problematic at best, dangerous at worst. First, learning theory stresses that humans learn from experience, but that experience can be either direct or observed. When the behavior results in a favorable outcome, the individual is more likely to repeat it. When the behavior produces a negative or unpleasant result, the person is less likely to imitate that behavior. This occurs whether the behavior is enacted or observed in others. This is quite efficient. I don’t have to burn my hand on my ceramic stovetop if I observe my husband doing so and shouting in pain – I can learn from his experience.

Bandura also describes how modeling by others influences our behavior. Social behaviors are learned partly by imitating models. Models who are most likely to be imitated are those considered powerful and attractive, and most like ourselves. Donald Trump is president of the United States, arguably the most powerful man in the world, and one who presents as an “outsider” to the political establishment – making him arguably more like the ordinary citizen. Attractiveness means more than physical appearance. To adolescents, who see photos of his gilded home, hotels, and resorts, his lifestyle is one they can easily see as successful. So, when this individual uses social media to attack others, calling them names, accusing them of alleged crimes, and demeaning persons of color, children and youth observe the consequences. What they see is increased attention, adulation at rallies, and a sense that the behavior enhances his popularity. Children and adolescents see those outcomes as desirable attainments, especially at a developmental period in which forming an identity includes a quest for social status.

Bandura (2002) also was concerned with moral behavior and proposed his theory of moral disengagement to explain the ways in which humans engage in acts that are contrary to their moral principles without feeling guilty. Moral disengagement is a cognitive process whereby we rationalize the behavior using selective mechanisms such as suggesting, for example, that the action serves a higher moral purpose, that the target of the behavior either deserves the mistreatment or is less than human, that the harmfulness of the action is trivial, that others do worse things, and others. We observe these processes in the online behavior of the role models, particularly blaming the victim and dehumanizing the “other” who is then attacked online without guilt.

To return to the adage with which I began this piece, I submit that the media-immersed youth of our country see abundant evidence of cyberbullying by prominent adults who are modeling the behavior; slogans and taglines are not sufficient to outweigh the examples they perceive to be associated with fame and fortune and power. We need prominent figures – politicians, celebrities, athletes – to demonstrate effective ways to communicate displeasure online without denigrating others.


Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-hall.

Bandura, A. (2002). Selective moral disengagement in the exercise of moral agency. Journal of Moral Education, 31(2), 101-119.

Duggan, M. (2017, July). Online harassment 2017. Retrieved from https://www.pewinternet.org/2017/07/11/online-harassment-2017

Huang, F. L., & Cornell, D. G. (2019). School teasing and bullying after the presidential election. Educational Researcher, 48(2), 69-83.

Műller, K. & Schwarz, C. (2018). Making American hate again? Twitter and hate crime under Trump. SSRN Electronic Journal. Retrieved from https://ssrn.com/abstract=3149103

Southern Poverty Law Center. (2019). Hate at school. Retrieved from https://www.splcenter.org/sites/default/files/tt_2019_hate_at_school_report_final_0.pdf

Author Bio

Dr. Sheri Bauman is a professor of counseling at the University of Arizona. She earned her Ph.D. in counseling psychology from New Mexico State University in 1999. Prior to earning her doctorate in 1999, she worked in public schools for 30 years, 18 of those as a school counselor. She is also a licensed psychologist (retired). Dr. Bauman conducts research on bullying, cyberbullying, and peer victimization, and teacher responses to bullying. She is a frequent presenter on these topics at local, state, national, and international conferences. She has authored and edited several books on bullying and cyberbullying in addition to more than 65 articles in scholarly journals. She is on the board of trustees of Ditch the Label, an anti-bullying charity based in the UK. Her newest book, Political cyberbullying: Perpetrators and targets of a new digital aggression will be available in November from PraegerPublishing.

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