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Online Disinhibition Effect

Why are some people meaner online than IRL?

We’ve all seen it: that certain person who never shies away from being the catalyst in internet drama. Fueled by rage and their own sense of rightness, they put anyone in the sights on blast the moment they oppose. They can be cruel and quick to cut people down who might get in their way. Or someone else is quick to jump on the bandwagon of heated debate and snide comments. Chanting from the sidelines and egging on the rest of the mob–

But what if they aren’t like that in real life?

What if people would describe them as quiet? Kind? Maybe even meek?

So they end up having this dual personality on the internet VS their real life.

There’s a name for this phenomenon: the online disinhibition effect.

“the lack of restraint one feels when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person”

There can be a strange type of anonymity on the internet or at least the feeling of it. Of course, there have been stories that show us that people can find out a lot about you just from the internet, but when you are physically removed from the conversation it’s easy to feel like you can be a little more lose-lipped or say things you normally wouldn’t.

Hiding behind the screen, or thinking you may never see that person in life so what does it matter, can make it easier to say things we may refrain from when we are in person. It takes a lot to say cruel or aggressive things right to people’s faces– you have their expressions to feed off of, the immediate consequences, all the emotions and feelings that go with communicating.

There are two ways to categorize online disinhibition effect.

The BENIGN DISINHIBITION is the nicer side of the coin– the desire to express one’s thoughts and feelings in an authentic and genuine way. They can share personal fears, secrets, or wishes that help them to connect to their peers. They can help create a safe space to express things that may be difficult to do. They can also show unusual acts of kindness and generosity. Their goal is to work through their problems in a healthy way and grow as a person.

On the other side is TOXIC DISINHIBITION– anger, hatred, threats, and rude language spill out onto the screen. People could explore the darker spots of the internet that they normally wouldn’t. This side simply seems to be lashing out blindly and viciously, with no desire for healthy growth or any kind of outcome.

So it isn’t always bad. You can meet and create genuine connections online with like-minded people that can help you grow as a human being. Sometimes, we can become closed off from the outside world, or we may not have to resources to create lasting friendships or helpful friendships in our real lives. So, the internet can be a wonderful place to find our “tribe” so to speak.

Online disinhibition effect is a relatively new term– before the internet, we didn’t really have it. And so there is still much to learn about why we do it and how it’s caused.

There are some theories behind the why:

  1. False closeness and reduced boundaries. Being friends with someone online can feel a lot closer than it actually is. We connect with them immediately, and can sometimes overstep our boundaries when it comes to venting or discussing controversial topics.

  2. Greater sense of control and power. You can edit, re-edit and take as much time as you want to craft that perfect tweet, comeback, etc. You can revisit an argument as much as you want. There’s even more power when you can simply delete and comment or “unfriend” someone for whatever reason you see fit.

  3. Some people are just mean. Some people are just cruel and mean-spirited. Some people just want to start those fights and arguments.

  4. It can be cathartic. Venting (to an extent) can help sort through a messy event that has happened to you. An awful IRL encounter, a rocky relationship, etc. You don’t have to wait for a friend to be free, or write in a journal. Nowadays you can vent to thousands of people with the click of a button. Which, in some cases, can feel wonderful to be heard and you can find good groups of people online to help you. Also, being angry isn’t a bad thing. It’s an emotion just like any others we have. We even created Rage Rooms to let our anger out in a cathartic and more controlled way. But it can be taken too far online, and our anger can cause us to lash out at people who may not deserve it.

It is easy to forget when we don’t see that other person the effects our words and actions can have on them. It can be easy to send a scathing tweet and simply carry on with the rest of our days, lives, etc.

But words can always have consequences,

even the ones on our screens.

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