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Is the Internet Making You Meaner?

If the Internet’s making you feel meaner, you’re not imagining it. People really do act differently online than they do in person. Here’s why.

Co-produced with Common Sense Education @CommonSenseEd

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***Do people act differently online than they do in person?
Yes. This phenomenon is known as the online disinhibition effect. Essentially, being online lowers your inhibitions. This often results in people either behaving meaner, or opening up more online than they normally would in face to face conversations. When people act meaner online it can lead to hostile online environments. This is what researchers call “toxic disinhibition.” Conversely, when people open up more freely online than in person– they can often feel more connected to online users, which creates a supportive online environment. Researchers call this “benign disinhibition.”

*Why do people act differently online than they are in person?
People aren’t always meaner online than in person, but according to the online disinhibition effect people can act differently online. The most common ways people act differently is by either being meaner or opening up more. According to a paper published in 2004 by psychologist John Suler, there are about 6 main reasons people act differently online. First, if you’re anonymous online you feel less accountable for your actions and less vulnerable when it comes to opening up about personal things. Additionally, online you’re often “invisible” so you don’t have to worry about body language and tone– and you can easily misrepresent yourself. With online communication there is usually a lag-time between when you post something and when you get a response, so it’s easy to just post something and bounce without thinking about the consequences. Online, we also tend to attribute voices and imagined characteristics to written text based on our own expectations and not necessarily on the actual intended meaning/ tone of the text, which can lead people to act differently than they might in person. People also tend to view online more as a game, where real life rules don’t necessarily apply. And finally, authority figures aren’t as big of a deal online– online, people pretty much feel and act as equals, which can lead people to act differently than they normally would offline.

The Online Disinhibition Effect (CyberPsychology & Behavior)

Individual and social benefits of online discussion forums (Computers in Human Behavior)

Online Harassment 2017 (Pew Research Center)

A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying (Pew Research Center)

Anyone Can Become A Troll: Causes of Trolling Behavior in Online Discussions (CSCW 2017)

The Psychology Behind Social Media Interactions (Psychology Today)

Why Is Everyone on the Internet So Angry (Scientific American)

Technology addiction’s contribution to mental wellbeing: The positive effect of online social capital (Computer Human Behavior)

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KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio, and web media. Funding for Above the Noise is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Silver Giving Foundation, Stuart Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.