You may have noticed that people like to complain and criticise when they’re online. I mean, they like to complain and criticise in real life too, but they do it more, and more viciously, online. And it isn’t just complaining, it’s behaviour in general. Online sex offending is a thing, even amongst people who would never consider it in reality. And we all know about online scams. What's happening here is disinhibition.
The disinhibition effect is a concept coined by John Suler in a paper he wrote in 2004, relating to the ways people behave online. Sometimes we call it ‘hiding behind a keyboard’. He identified that people don’t behave in real life the way they do when they’re on the internet, whether that’s on social media, in a chat room, on a dating site, or even talking to someone online instead of in real life. I get a lot of marriage proposals on Instagram, usually from middle aged men in America or India; I doubt they would walk up to me in the street and propose marriage, but when it’s online it’s apparently ok.
Sometimes this different behaviour is on purpose. We all know about catfishing, someone pretending to be something or someone they’re not in order to con you out of money or persuade you to send them naked pictures of yourself. (The very fact that you might consider doing that is another example of the disinhibition effect, which we’ll come on to in a minute). On dating sites there are always a number of people who say they’re single when they’re not, say they’re younger than they are, or that they have or don’t have kids when the opposite is true. I don’t use dating sites myself, but I have a number of clients who do. The first step is to start texting with a potential match. So you don’t know who this person is, you haven’t seen them and are working off a photo that might, for all you know, be 15 years old or of someone else entirely. But what tends to happen is that people get very intimate, very quickly. The official term for this is dissociative anonymity; ‘you don’t know me, I don’t know you’. It feels anonymous, even though you’re using the person’s name and you’ve got an image of what they (might) look like. So it feels safer. To some extent this is a good thing because if you are going to meet the person in real life, it’s a good idea to know a lot about them first; but on the opposite side of that, if they turn out not to be a match for you (even if they are who they say they are) you’ve essentially given a lot of personal information to a stranger.
Another aspect of disinhibition is solipsistic interjection, or ‘it’s all in my head’. Even if you’re video chatting with someone, you only see a small part of them and of the environment they’re in; if you’re texting or on social media you don’t even have that. What that means is that you’ll imagine what the person is like, both physically and emotionally. Their voice might remind you of someone you know or they’ll use terminology that you associate with a particular person, and your brain naturally starts to make them seem like the person you’re thinking of. How often have you talked regularly to someone on the phone or by text and when you meet them, thought ‘They look nothing like I thought they did!’? Of course this is happening to the person you’re talking to as well, and there’s a chance that when you do actually meet, you’re both disappointed by the reality.
When we’re typing what we’re saying instead of speaking, it can feel as if we’re talking to ourselves or even just writing in a journal that nobody else is going to see. That might lead you to type things you wouldn’t normally share. It can also lead to people saying things they wouldn’t say face to face (I refer you to comments on Facebook for numerous examples) which can be either very hurtful or lead the other person to think there’s an intimacy going on that wasn’t intended. This is the aspect that prompts you to send naked pictures too. You’re not sharing them with a real person, it’s just a username in the ether somewhere. But of course it is a real person, and one you don’t know; so over-sharing is potentially quite dangerous.
I have clients who only communicate by text, because they’re under 45; and those people can get into hideous rows with people as a result of the disinhibition effect. You wake up at 2am feeling low or grumpy and send a load of abuse to someone who upset you yesterday. They don’t reply of course, because it’s 2am, so you get even more angry that they’re ignoring you and send something even more vitriolic. How’s that going to look in the morning?
The disinhibition effect can be very useful in the right context; it’s what makes online pornography and sex-chat lines so successful. It doesn’t matter whether the person on the other end is fat, 50 and doing their ironing; in your head they’re the very epitome of whatever your favourite fantasy is. But it’s mostly dangerous. People do manipulate other people to send money or compromising photos, which can be used against them later. Middle aged men do pretend to be young girls so they can get real young girls to chat to them. They do build a relationship with that young girl and they do trade on the disinhibition effect to get them to send photos of themselves and possibly persuade them to do other things.
You can’t really avoid the disinhibition effect; it’s a psychological reality. Whether it’s happening deliberately or not, it makes you easy to influence. You start chatting by text, then they suggest you move to another social media platform and you agree, because why not? But why are they asking you to move? What else might they then ask you to do? When you’re tempted to type that judgemental or critical Facebook comment, is it something you would say to that person’s face?
So I would recommend always being cautious when talking online, and educate your teenagers about the disinhibition effect so they understand why they need to be cautious too. Remember you’re talking to a real person, and not necessarily the one you think they are. In the cold light of day are you going to be comfortable with sharing the things you’ve told them? Are you giving away information that might give them the passwords to your social media or online shopping accounts? Are you going to feel a bit silly or horribly humiliated if you meet them or if the information you’ve shared gets made public? Are you sexting with someone you aren’t 100% sure you’d want to sleep with if you met them in real life? (Because if you do meet up with someone you’ve been sexting with, they’re definitely going to expect you to sleep with them). Or are you saying hurtful, unkind things that you will be ashamed of later or which might attract even more hurtful, cruel things in return?
Caeredwen is a counsellor, coach and physical therapist based in Coleford in the Forest of Dean. If you would like to contact her in confidence you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website at www.magichandscalmminds.com.