Synopsis: The online disinhibition effect is a phenomenon that seeks to explain why individuals feel like they can express themselves more openly in cyberspaces, without the fear of consequence. Dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronicity, solipsistic introjection, dissociative imagination, and minimisation of status and authority are factors that have been found to cultivate this sense of online disinhibition. This disinhibition then goes on to impact self-disclosure, which may be either toxic or benign, depending on how we choose to use this freedom of expression.
As frequent internet and social media users, we all notice the damaging hate speech and blatant harassment on online platforms. We are also aware that the internet trolls spewing this hate are usually anonymous bots or people who do not dare to make threatening or hateful remarks outside cyberspace; in the real world. Psychologists and researchers largely agree that such inappropriate online behaviour is the result of a phenomenon that John Suler (2004) termed the online disinhibition effect.
The online disinhibition effect is the tendency of people to express themselves more freely and without social restraints on an online platform. However, Suler (2004) argues that this freedom to express oneself without psychological and social constraints should not be commended at all times. Instead, it is the primary cause of the relentless and vicious bullying and anti-social behaviour that has now come to define the world of social media.
Factors that Foster Online Disinhibition
Suler (2004) further identifies six factors inherent in cyberspace that contribute to the feeling of online disinhibition:
- Dissociative Anonymity
In cyberspace, people are primarily identified by their usernames or email addresses. These are chosen by the individuals themselves and therefore only allow us access to as much information as the individual is willing to share. Thus, in most cases, we are unable to trace online communication back to their accurate or authentic person of origin, which allows people to remain virtually anonymous. Such anonymity also creates a sense of dissociation because individuals can conduct themselves in a certain way online, which does not and will not impact their offline existence. The online gaming universe is one such cyberspace where individuals indulge in abusive exchanges without the consequences of such actions having any effect on their real social lives.
Invisibility refers to people’s ability not to be seen on online platforms. This mainly applies to text-based online interactions such as chat rooms, blogs and websites where individuals communicate and share without revealing their faces. It is a concept similar to anonymity; however, it differs from it. Under invisibility, people may share personal and sensitive information with each other, unlike in anonymity, but still, never see each other. Invisibility deepens inhibition because people do not have to worry about their physical appearance, clothes, body language, and other non-verbal cues of communication. Non-verbal cues such as tone and gestures generally act as inhibitors and therefore impede free communication.
Asynchronous communication refers to communication that does not take place in real-time. This is the case with emails, text messages and message boards. In these situations, since people do not receive immediate responses and also do not have to respond immediately, it creates a feeling of disinhibition. In real-time conversations, verbal and non-verbal cues from the other side impact our self-disclosure and behavioural responses. These are absent from online platforms wherein people take minutes, hours and even days to respond to communication.
- Solipsistic Introjection
In online communication (via texts, emails, etc.), when we receive messages from other individuals, our minds read these messages in a voice that is similar to significant others in our lives. Furthermore, in the absence of facial cues, our minds may also unconsciously assign faces and attitudes to the people we interact with online. In this manner, we create an introjected character in our intrapsychic world. Their persona is based not only on the information they choose to reveal through their messages but also a projection of our own expectations, desires, and needs. Thus, our mind may unconsciously perceive these conversations as happening with oneself and thereby contribute to the disinhibition effect.
- Dissociative Imagination
When we create characters out of the people we interact with online, we dissociate or split from this online universe. This means that our minds unconsciously start to believe that our authentic selves are different from our online selves, which exist in this other virtual make-believe realm where the responsibilities and constraints of the offline world do not apply. This perceived gap between the online and offline world amplifies the feeling of disinhibition.
- Minimisation of Status and Authority
In online interactions, individuals are not always aware of the status that other people hold in the offline world. Even in situations when individuals are informed about other people’s positions and power offline, the impact of these in online communication is limited. This is because authority and status are expressed mainly through non-verbal cues such as dress, distance, body language, etc., which are absent in most online modes of communication. This allows individuals to express themselves more openly because the fear of disapproval is mitigated when the perception of authority is minimised, thus fostering online disinhibition.
Benign and Toxic Online Disinhibition
In examining the effects of the online disinhibition effect, Suler distinguishes between benign disinhibition and toxic disinhibition. The benign disinhibition effect is the positive side of the dichotomy and refers to the healthy acts of self-disclosure performed by individuals, especially adolescents, on social media. Studies have found that individuals are more likely to divulge personal information that may be sensitive or embarrassing on social media because of the sense of anonymity provided by the platform. It is termed positive because individuals report feeling a cathartic sense of relief from being able to express their feelings openly. The benign disinhibition effect also provides typically shy, introverted, marginalised and neurotic people with an opportunity to communicate their thoughts and ideas. Some even argue that online disinhibition may inspire or at least foster pro-social behaviour. People are more likely to ask for and offer help on social media platforms. For example, as social media users of platforms such as Instagram and Twitter, we all witnessed philanthropy, altruism, volunteerism, and mental health support groups gain popularity on our feeds during the deadly second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in India (Lapidot-Lefler & Barak, 2015).
In contrast, we have the toxic disinhibition effect representing the negative aspect of the online disinhibition effect. This manifests in the form of threats of physical harm or death, online stalking, bullying, harassment and other similar anti-social behaviour, which are most evident in online gaming, pornographic platforms and bodies disseminating politically or culturally sensitive information. These are all primarily caused by the anonymity and invisibility factors of online disinhibition. Because individuals feel like they cannot be identified as perpetrators of hate and violence, there is hardly a sense of accountability.
It is pertinent to study the effects of online disinhibition in a global climate where most of our daily interactions take place in cyberspaces. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has a shift in channels of communication and dissemination of information. Therefore, understanding the pros and cons of online disinhibition and how they impact our lives at micro and macro levels becomes essential.
Psychology of Cyberspace – The Online Disinhibition Effect. (n.d.). http://truecenterpublishing.com/psycyber/disinhibit.html.
Suler, J. (2004, July 28). The Online Disinhibition Effect. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/1094931041291295.
Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2015, July 1). The benign online disinhibition effect: Could situational factors induce self-disclosure and prosocial behaviors? Cyberpsychology. https://cyberpsychology.eu/article/view/4335/3402.
Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), 434–443. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2011.10.014.