Online Disinhibition Effect

The term "online disinhibition" is new to me, but the concept is not. It is defined as being the loosening or complete abandonment of social restrictions and inhibitions when online that would otherwise be present in a normal face-to-face interaction.

You can add a whole string of other psychological terms into this area: dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimization of authority.

At first, you might think of this lack of inhibition as a negative thing. People can feel free to act badly. What surprised me was that much of the research shows some positive tendencies like becoming more affectionate, more willing to open up to others, less guarded about emotions.

I encountered the term in a talk by Rey Junco, a professor and researcher who studies how technology use affects college students. His talk was focused on using quantitative methods to assess the effects of social media on student development, engagement, and success.

Of course, online disinhibition doesn't only lead to good behaviors. Psychologist John Suler distinguishes between benign disinhibition and the bad behaviors. Users can also do or say as they wish without fear of any kind of meaningful reprisals online. We all have encountered some form of bad behavior online in a forum or with comments or even in a blog post itself. Bad behavior is low-risk with a slim chance of being caught and fairly lightweight punishments.

shoutOne much older technology also created this disinhibition. The Citizen Band (CB) radio craze of the 1970s also allowed users to be on-air, obnoxious and fairly anonymous.

The asynchronous nature of the Internet can also affect a person's inhibitions. Places like online forums do not happen in real time and people can post and leave, never to return while their comment lives on and continues to get responses.  As anyone who has taught or learned online has learned, without the visual face-to-face cues we are used to in real life, we tend to assign characteristics and traits to the virtual person. That has always occurred for people reading about fictional characters or listening to a voice on the radio and now it occurs constantly online.

Sometimes that lack of inhibition burns people. The person who posted the inappropriate comment or tweet and was fired. In my earliest days teaching online, back around 2000, we always felt the need to include a policy on "netiquette" for students. Unfortunately, there is no universal netiquette policy or enforcement agency on the Internet.

Anonymity online can be a good thing. I remember reading studies about women in online engineering courses being more successful because some of the inhibitions from being in a predominantly male classroom were lifted.

Jeremy Dean says in a post that "These factors work together to create a world in which we can feel freer. But this freedom is an illusion maintained by the online experience of invisibility, anonymity and lack of immediate, visceral, emotional feedback from others, or at least our ability to turn that feedback off."

I'm not sure that comedian Louie C.K. intended to comment on disinhibition, but he certainly doesn't see his kids living on their phones as a good thing.


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