Visit the comments section of any online publication or scroll down to the activity beneath a popular YouTube video and you’ll see the full spectrum of human emotion, often expressions of anger, aggression and vitriol. Then there is the dark side of the dark side of the Web: cyberbullying incidents that have, in the worst cases, contributed to the suicide of the victims involved, such as Irish teenagers Erin Gallagher and Ciara Pugsley.
While anti-bullying campaigns are useful for raising awareness and encouraging the reporting of cyberbullying incidents, there is also research being done into why certain deviant behaviour appears to be intensified by virtue of taking place online. Dr John Suler is a professor of psychology at Rider University, New Jersey and specializes in cyberpsychology, which is the study of individual and group behaviour on the Web.
Suler’s paper titled ‘The Online Disinhibition Effect’ – published in 2004 in the journal Cyberpsychology and Behaviour – approaches deviant or anti-social behaviour from the point of view of how safe or free an individual feels in an online setting to express opinions or engage with others in a way that they mightn’t necessarily do in a face-to-face situation. Essentially, this paper is the theory behind the feeling many of us have that some people are “brave” enough to be nasty on an online forum but would never say to a person standing in front of them.
Do all of us behave differently online? This depends on the person says Suler: “Some people online behave very similarly to the way they do in person. Some people may act quite differently.
“People who have underlying needs and emotions that need to be expressed, but cannot be expressed in their “real” life, will be especially tempted to do so online.”
Two of the concepts Suler uses to explain deviant behaviour online are dissociative anonymity and invisibility; it is much easier to be less inhibited when we feel that we can slip away unnoticed and unidentified. It sounds similar to when people get caught up in riots or become part of a group of football hooligans, I suggest to Suler.
“Sure, any situation in the ‘real’ world that involves anonymity and deindividuation (blending with the crowd) is one in which a person might lose their sense of individual responsibility and do things that they wouldn’t do otherwise,” he explains.
One of the most damaging forms of online behaviour is cyberbullying. Can the online disinhibition effect shed some light on what kinds of people engage in cyberbullying?
“Bullying, online or off, is almost always a displacement or acting out of underlying feelings of anger and helplessness.
“All of us might do some of this under the right conditions, but people with a history of abuse and impulsiveness are more likely to engage in this kind of acting out.”
Cyberbullying has an added element of audience. On social networks like Facebook, the victim’s network of friends are also exposed to this. “Unfortunately, there can be a ‘performance’ aspect to bullying in general. Bullies often like to impress people with their supposed strength, especially their minions,” explains Suler.
Generally speaking, he says that it is easier and more tempting for an individual to be anti-social online but it does come down to how restricted or inhibited that individual feels in an offline setting to begin with. There are, however, positive effects to feel less socially restricted online; Suler says that some researchers believe it may result in acts of generosity and altruism.
“One factor contributing to online disinhibition is the tendency to project one’s own thoughts and feelings into the somewhat ambiguous interactions we have online – ambiguous because, especially in text communication, we can’t see or hear other people. As a result, some people might project feelings of sympathy into how they experience others online.”
Check out watchyourspace.ie for more information, short videos and lots of tips about cyberbullying.