The internet has become an everyday part of our existence.
Most of us can’t go a single day without checking our email, social networks, playing online games, posting on message boards, or visiting our favorite blogs.
The benefits of all this information and inter-connectivity with others are obvious, but we’re just beginning to learn more about some of the costs associated with online behavior.
The online disinhibition effect is one new concept in psychology that breaks down 6 factors that characterize a lot of online behavior – and how it can sometimes bring out the worst in us.
In essence, these are the ways the internet turn us all into a bunch of jerks and assholes.
One of the the first factors behind the online disinhibition effect is “anonymity.”
Often times when we engage in online behavior it’s through some kind of mask. We choose how we present ourselves through our user name, profile picture, and a few details in our profiles. Besides that, we are virtually unknown to the people we interact with.
Unfortunately, this sense of anonymity can cause us to do things that we’d never do if we were face-to-face with someone, because our personal reputation often times can’t be traced back to what we say or do.
Another factor behind the online disinhibition effect is “invisibility.”
Just as we are anonymous toward others, others are anonymous toward us. We talk to “invisible” people – people we don’t really know anything about – their age, sex, gender, nationality, education, background, etc.
And due to this lack of information, we often make unhealthy assumptions about the people we interact with online. We assume they are just like us, and they think in the same way as us.
This makes it difficult to connect with people in a more open and empathetic way. We have a greater tendency to project who we are talking to, rather than learning about the person and really understanding their point-of-view.
A third characteristic of the online disinhibition effect is “impulsivity.”
In the digital world, it’s easy to want something and then get it right away. We get addicted to instant gratification – we can buy new things in just a single click, we can post a new blog or video and get immediate feedback, or we can download a new music album right when it first comes out.
This atmosphere causes us to focus way more on the “short-term” of our actions while online, and ignore the “long-term.” We become a bit like drug addicts, always searching for the next quick boost in pleasure.
Another characteristic of the online disinhibition effect is “narcissism.”
For many people, the internet can be a way to artificially boost our self-esteem. We often create a kind of “digital self” that we exaggerate just so other people see us as “better” than we really are, this includes adding as many friends as we can on social media so that we appear more popular.
One recent study published in Computers in Human Behavior found that increased use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter was associated with higher levels of narcissism.
The anonymous nature of the internet allows us to build a “digital self” that is often in stark contrast to our actual self, although some people tend to exaggerate this “digital self” more than others.
5. Lack of Authority
Another influence of the online disinhibition effect is “lack of authority.”
Many places on the internet have very low moderation or censorship for bad behavior. This makes it very easy to say and do mean things without ever having to worry about any consequences of our behavior.
For example, if you say something racist or sexist in the real world, you can often lose your job or a good friend. But there are many places on the internet where you can get away with saying something and then never have to experience any repercussions.
I don’t think we should force government regulation or authority in these places, but I do think we need to be mindful of how this “lack of authority” can sometimes make us act in ways we wouldn’t when offline.
The final factor behind the online disinhibition effect is “disassociation.”
Once we do something online, it’s really easy to just walk away from it and never have to think about it again. Because of this we use many parts of the internet as a form of unhealthy escapism.
We don’t see our online behavior as part of the “real world” – instead, it’s more of a game that we can turn on and off whenever we want. We don’t like something we did? We can just delete it or never go back to that site again. Or we can just press the “reset button” and create a new profile.
Nothing we do seems to matter too much, because it’s so easy to just disengage from an old identity and create a new one.
The internet is just a tool – and it can be used in both helpful and harmful ways – it’s up to each of us as individuals to try to use it for good. By being more aware of the online disinihibition effect, hopefully we can be more mindful of our online behavior in the future.
Discover more tools to daily growth in the digital guide The Science of Self Improvement