Did I Cross the Line?: Gender Differences in Adolescents’
Anonymous Digital Self-Reports of Wrongdoing in an Online
Sara E. Thomas
Robert L. Selman
Published online: 4 October 2016
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016
Abstract Young people spend substantial and increasing
quantities of time communicating on and through digital plat-
forms. Online contexts can be frontiers for communication and
disclosure unbounded from offline life. The present study ex-
plores how U.S. teens position themselves in anonymous dig-
ital posts that pertain to wrongdoing. Do adolescents’ posts
reproduce social norms and popular gendered narratives about
wrongdoing—or, conversely, do anonymous platforms allow
for a departure from gendered scripts? The authors draw on
780 online stories (390 written by self-reported young men,
390 by self-reported young women) about teens’ experiences
with wrongdoing to investigate differences in reported rates of
victimization and admission of wrongdoing between young
male and female posters. Young men are more likely to report
instances of their own wrongdoing than are young women,
despite the fact that stories of victimization are equally likely
to implicate young women and men as culpable of wrongdoing.
These findings suggest adolescents internalize and express
wrongdoing in gendered ways even in disembodied, anony-
mous online environments. For practitioners and policymakers
interested in questions of school discipline, anti-bullying initia-
tives, and student accountability for interpersonal relationships,
our findings suggest the need for the use of different scripts
when setting context for male and female students.
Keywords Aggressive behavior
Human sex differences
Adolescents’ social relationships are, appropriately, at the fore-
front of conversations about adolescent development and well-
being. Relationships are central to adolescents’ psychosocial
development; between school, hobbies, and digital platforms,
teens spend increasing amounts of their time with peers/friends
(Kroger 2005; Lenhart et al. 2015; Nakkula and Toshalis 2006).
Consequently, concerns about bullying, romantic relationships,
early onset of sexual activity, and sexting (texting sexually
explicit images) plague educators, parents, and policymakers.
Researchers employ a range of methods in the service of un-
derstanding the causes and consequences of adolescents’ be-
haviors. Yet, teens’ conceptualizations of what constitutes prob-
lematic behavior are less understood. How do youth position
and portray themselves within contentious social interactions?
Gender differences in self-representations within these contexts
are also largely ignored. Do male and female adolescents differ
in their portrayals and, if so, how? The purpose of the current
study is to address these questions by focusing on U.S. adoles-
cents’ disclosures in an anonymous online context.
Adolescents’ Development and Online Use
Adolescence is marked by a series of new cognitive, social,
emotional, and moral developmental tasks. Adolescents begin
to construct ideological, moral, social, and sexual identities by
merging and integrating past experiences and family norms
with role exploration and peer group norms (Kroger 2005).
Teens’ development and expression of their identities are in-
variably tied to their social contexts (Bronfenbrenner 1977).
* Sara E. Thomas
School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University,
Annenberg Hall, 2120 Campus Drive, Evanston, IL 60202, USA
Graduate School of Education, Harvard University,
Cambridge, MA 02138, USA
Sex Roles (2017) 77:59–71