Cyber Slurs: A Second Look at the Polling

October 4, 2011

Interact online with a young person and you’re likely to be called the “N-word,” a slut, or other derogatory terms—because that’s what many young people in their teens and 20s do when they use social media (computers, smart phones, tablets etc.)

Or so says a recent Associated Press-MTV poll which found that young social media users frequently use slurs online. “Seventy-one percent say people are more likely to use slurs online or in text messages than in person,” according to the findings, which also indicate that many young people think it’s okay as long as it’s “joking around.”

The poll is part of an MTV campaign to stop the spread of digital abuse. The results paint a picture of young people who appear not to care whether their words offend those on the receiving end.

But just what do these findings mean?

Are youth today meaner and more accepting of slurs than previous generations? Does this language mean they are racist, sexist (and inconsiderate)? Or do these findings tell us something about the way users – of any age really –  enjoy anonymity on the Internet and are more prone to insults without retribution? Or perhaps it reveals something about the politics of hate that permeate the country?

One thing is clear, these findings may serve to add fuel to a public (mis)perception about young people—our values, our trustworthiness and the way we conduct ourselves.

Cultural critic Henry Giroux, an expert on youth studies and one of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy—which in part focuses on examining the “deeper meaning” behind language—insisted that young people are not blame for this type of behavior. 

In an interview by email, Giroux told me:  

“On one level, it reads as just another kid-trashing piece in which adults are completely missing. After all, where do kids pick up this type of racism, moral indifference, and illiteracy if not from the formative culture that powerful corporate structures and adults now surround them with?

“On the other hand, it testifies to a crisis in public values, education, and in the major cultural apparatuses that have no language outside of that of consumerism to address young people and provide them with the vocabulary they need to be engaged, critical, and responsible citizens,” he wrote. “Young people are not the enemy here, they are simply symptomatic of a deeply troubled and crisis-ridden society.”

Since the poll results seem to vilify young people, I found myself questioning the validity of the poll and its methodology. Is it really accurate?

Mike Hais, a former political pollster and retired professor of Political Science, does not question the accuracy of the findings. Hais is an expert on Millennials, and is the co-author of Millennial Momentum, which he recently co-wrote with Morley Winograd. It is their second book on the subject of Millennials in the U.S.   

Hais has a different take on the poll. First, he attributes the slurs in part to the “anonymity afforded by the Internet.”

He also thinks it has to do with subversive expressions of humor, and that’s nothing new.

“Young people of all generations typically rebel a bit against ‘propriety’ and this includes humor that pushes the envelope and is sometimes shocking and seems insensitive to older people. That's a big part of what's going on here,” he says.

Hais doesn’t think the poll really says much about Millennial attitudes towards minorities, women, gays, or African-Americans.

On the contrary, he says, “survey data from reputable and respected organizations such as Pew clearly indicates that Millennials are the most tolerant generation . . .  And, that's not only seen in the professed attitudes of Millennials, but also in their behavior. Cross group violence and tensions are lower than ever in our history.”

I hope this poll doesn’t get taken out of context as empirical evidence that most young people are racist, sexist bullies. The issue is more complex than that.


Cryn Johannsen is a political activist and the founder and executive director of All Education Matters. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including USA Today, The Huffington Post,, and The New England Journal of Higher Education.

Cryn Johannsen