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It’s only bantz: Interpreting online ambiguous social cues SSS20

  • School: School of Social Sciences
  • Study mode(s): Full-time / Part-time
  • Starting: 2022
  • Funding: UK student / EU student (non-UK) / International student (non-EU) / Fully-funded


NTU's Fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme 2022

Project ID: SSS20

Banter has been defined as “an interactional bonding game” (Dynel, 2008, p.246) that is important for the maintenance of social relationships and social cohesion.  However, not all experiences of banter are positive.  Research with university students highlighted a growing tendency to label potentially harmful behaviour as banter as a mechanism to downplay the significance and intent of the ambiguous comments (Buglass et al., 2020).  Like banter, ambiguity in the actions or words of others is part of everyday life and this means that when people witness the same event or act, they may take different meanings from the situation (Schoth & Liossi, 2017).  To help us make sense of the ambiguous situations that we encounter, we make use of the available cues to help guide our interpretations which may include non-verbal cues such as facial expressions or body language.  In the online world, these cues are reduced or can take different forms that include graphical emotional cues such as emojis, stickers, or memes. Although these cues are designed to facilitate communication, there is the potential that they can prompt ambiguity and may be open to misinterpretation or misuse.  Misinterpretation can arise when the recipient or wider audience interpret the graphical emotional cues in a way that was different from how the sender had intended.  Where misinterpretation occurs, it has been suggested that this can lead to elevated levels of anxiety and reduced well-being (Lansford et al., 2006).  Misuse of banter can be used as a mechanism to mask inappropriate behaviour, which in the online world can manifest as acts of cyberbullying and relational aggression (Betts & Spenser, 2017; Abell, Buglass & Betts, 2019). Furthermore, affordances of technology mediated graphical banter provide a record of the interaction that can be replicated, shared, and judged long after the interaction has occurred.

Given the increase in online communications in recent years, understanding the mechanisms involved in the use and interpretation of online graphical cues is timely.  This project will explore: (a) how adolescents and young adults use online graphical cues in their social interactions as a form of banter, (b) the contextual factors that influence the interpretation of online graphical cues (e.g., type of graphical cue, size and type of audience and intent), and (c) the impact of ambiguous online graphical cues for well-being of those adolescents and young adults who send, receive, and witness ambiguous online messages containing graphical cues.

School strategic research priority

This project aligns to the work of the Bullying and Aggressive Behaviour research group and the work of the Centre for Public and Psychosocial Health. The project links to the School of Social Sciences research theme of Mental Health and Wellbeing and the University strategic themes of Health and Wellbeing, and Safety and Security of Citizens and Society.

The findings from this project also have the potential to contribute to the impact case study on cyberbullying is being developed by members of the Bullying and Aggressive Behaviour research group.

Entry qualifications

For the eligibility criteria, visit our studentship application page.

How to apply

For guidance and to make an application, please visit our studentship application page. The application deadline is Friday 14 January 2022.

Fees and funding

This is part of NTU's 2022 fully-funded PhD Studentship Scheme.

Guidance and support

Download our full applicant guidance notes for more information.

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