Debates in Digital Culture 2019/Online Disinhibition

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Introduction to Online Disinhibition[edit]

According to the Online Disinhibition effect, the behaviours one exhibits online greatly stray from that of the ones they express offline. According to John R. Suler, this aspect of online life is like a “double edged sword.” [1] Whilst on the one hand it can have positive impacts by encouraging people to explore and express their true identities without societal constraints which dominate the physical world, it can also be extremely negative. Online disinhibition has given rise to many toxic implications such as cyberbullying, harassment or threatening language. In his writings on the topic, Suler identifies six key factors which play a role in the formation of online disinhibition. Each will be examined within this essay.

People are becoming more and more reliant on social media as an outlet for expression. However, this does not always come without a cost

All in all, this topic looks at comparisons between online and offline behaviours and the potential motives that lie behind these alterations. Whilst some explain these deviances in behaviour through psychological theories such as the ‘Social structure and Social Learning Theory’ which argues that our behaviours often mimic those of the people we surround ourselves with [2], the underlying premise is the same. The online world provides new ways of expression that are often what people view as morally unacceptable offline, but now these same modes of expression are suddenly viewed in a completely different light when produced from behind a screen.


Main Concepts[edit]

Benign Disinhibition[edit]

Benign online disinhibition refers to the positive outcomes which can come from presenting oneself on the Internet. Being that online platforms lack the social cues of face-to-face communication, they come across as far less intimidating. We no longer feel a pressure to conform to societal norms. We can be who we want to be, expressing ourselves in a way in which we would not feel comfortable showing offline in the form of what Suler calls an “emotional hit and run.” [3]

Benign online disinhibition allows us to grow and develop our identities in ways that are often denied in the offline world.

Not only does the fluidity of this platform allow us to experiment with multiple identities, but it often encourages us to be more open and furthermore accepting than we are in person. If something is weighing us down but we aren’t ready to reveal it to our peers face to face, we can test the water by doing so anonymously online.

Online platforms not only bring people together within the LGBT community, but they can also - often through anonymity - create a 'safe space' for people to express their sexuality without fear of torment.

As a result, we can “use social media to connect with people struggling with the same issues as you; social media can be an incredibly powerful support network.” [4]

Charles Cheung further emphasizes this idea in a chapter where he writes about the powers of ‘personal homepages.’ For those who struggle with face-to-face communication, these platforms are the perfect place for one to unleash their true identities. [5] Not only that, but they can do so without the pressure of having to get it right first time. They can edit and explore until their heart's content. To put it another way, as stated by Aija Mayrock, “Social media is currency for young people. It is a portal to potential possibilities, even for people who feel hopeless, uninspired, scared, and alone.” [6] Therefore, benign online disinhibition can open doors that are usually locked by the social norms of the offline world.

Toxic Disinhibition[edit]

The internet is not always a place of comfort or support. At times it is a space polluted by internet trolls, cyber criminals and cyberbullies. The anonymity and invisibility that online environments provide to users, in comparison to the face-to-face interactions offline, can cause an increase in negative and abusive behaviour within online interactions. Lapidot-Lefler and Barak (2012), [7] identify that a reason behind this toxic behaviour is in response to lack of visual and vocal communication. When there are no reminders that communication is genuinely happening with another human being, and not just a screen, the severity of an individual’s actions can become lost to them.

technology mediated communication enables toxic behaviour through anonymity and/or invisibility of individual users.

Cyberbullying is a concept that has become familiar in western society due to its rising prevalence. [2][3] [4] Cyberbullying is associated with varying degrees of actions that can include repeated malicious behaviour against an individual with intent to harass, harm and/or embarrass.[8][9] The act does not include physical violence, but invites “other types of aggression such as verbal harassment, social exclusion, and cyber targeting."[10] In relation to the connection with cyberbullying and toxic online disinhibition, studies such as Slonje and Smith (2008) and Vandebosch and Van Cleemput (2008),[11] recognize that online anonymity and invisibility are factors which increase the likelihood of individuals becoming online abusers, or trolls, because interactions with others are mediated through technology rather than physical engagement with victims - ultimately making the abuser less likely to be aware of how damaging their actions can be. Slonje and Smith commented that “without such direct feedback there may be fewer opportunities for empathy or remorse and there may also be less opportunity for bystander intervention.”[12] This type of toxic online disinhibition is a common issue with children and young adults, and research indicates that “cyberbullying may be an even greater risk factor for suicidal idealization in adolescents than more traditional types of bullying”[13]. The abundance of cyberbullying suicide cases are evident within media exposure, illustrating clearly the genuine problems that virtual spaces can have upon real people in ‘real’ life.

The different forms of harassment experienced by female journalists due to toxic online disinhibition

Doxing (or 'doxxing') as an online practice is perhaps less recognised than cyberbullying, yet is potentially one of the most toxic forms of disinhibition within online environments. Doxing, as Parul Khanna et al (2016) defines, is a process that involves an individual or organisation recovering information (PII) through searching through publicly available data from “social media websites, search engines, password cracking methods [and] social engineering tools” in order to “threaten, embarrass, harass and humiliate the organization or individual” [14] Furthermore, organisational doxing brings this process to a wider scale of victims, as the information obtained and released involves multiple people's lives being targeted.

Evidence for Online Disinhibition[edit]

Benign Disinhibition Effects[edit]

Patients tend to give more honest answers and report more health-related problems to a computer than to a doctor face-to-face

Research has shown that when people feel that they are visually anonymous online, they are much more likely to disclose a greater amount of information than they would in a face-to-face (FtF) interaction. This can be seen particularly from a series of studies carried out by Joinson (2001)[15]. This study found that participants engaging in computer-mediated communication (CMC) portrayed higher levels of self-disclosure compared to participants in face-to-face interactions.

People feel more comfortable talking about issues via online surveys which are text based than they do face-to-face.

The second study incorporated a video link for half of those communicated via CMC. The findings for levels of self-disclosure here correlated heavily with that found in FtF interactions suggesting once more that people feel more willing to share personal information when it is purely text based. Joinson (2007) says that "methods that increase the social presence of the surveyor have been predicted to lead to a reduced willingness to answer sensitive questions."[16] Furthermore, when data collection regarding health issues is conducted through computer-aided-self-interviews, patients tend to give more honest answers and report more health-related problems to a computer than to a doctor face-to-face. This once again proves that visual anonymity online encourages people to disclose a greater amount of information, which in the occasion of describing symptoms to a machine instead of a doctor, is highly beneficial for their health and thus their real life.

Toxic Disinhibtion Effects[edit]

Toxic online disinhibition can have devastating consequences. The most well-known example of this would perhaps be cyberbullying. However, such harassment can come in a whole variety of forms, one of which is known as doxing. Most recognisable in mainstream media, in the horrific attack on celebrities in 2014 and 2017 where multiple nude photographs were published on the anonymous website 4chan.[5] [6] [7].

"It was so unbelievably violating"[1] Actress Jennifer Lawrence, addressing the 4chan hack

With this website allowing for “90% of posts” to be “made by fully anonymous users”,[17] an environment free of consequences is ultimately created. Anonymity may encourage some to express themselves freely. However, for others, they see it as an opportunity to get away with extremely derogatory behaviour against others in a toxic online environment where this behaviour is accepted rather than condemned.

Members of the public, not just celebrities, have also fallen victim to such toxicity. An example being, Rebecca Scheffler (a pseudonym name) who shared her devastating experience with doxing on the digital publication page, Narratively.com. In her post 'Someone Posted My Phone Number On Craigslist and Said I Wanted Strange Men to Rape Me'. Being that this woman had already been a victim of rape in the real world, such harassment brought back a whole load of unnecessary trauma that subsequently impacted her mental wellbeing. Thus, contrary to popular belief, what happens online doesn’t stay online. It impacts real people in ways that are often extremely difficult to overcome.

Other examples of toxic disinhibition come from impulsive tweeters like Justine Sacco who failed to think about how posting "Going to Africa. Hope I get AIDS. Just kidding. I'm White!" could potentially lose her not only her job, but also destroy personal relationships and leave her suffering with PTSD and depression.

Suler's Factors for Online Disinhibition[edit]

Dissociative Anonymity[edit]

Anonymity is one of the main factors behind Online Disinhibition according to John Suler.

People feel more confident when they don't have to show who they really are.

Unlike in the real world, online we are given full control over how much - if any - of our ‘real’ identity we want to make known. By using multiple usernames/titles we can feel as though, when online, our actions are completely separate from that of our offline selves. In other words, by utilising the anonymity that social networking platforms provide, we often are just as fooled as those lapping up our disguise.

'On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog.' - Peter Steiner

Anonymity can have positive and negative impacts. However, in the grand scheme of things, it has been more commonly associated with toxic online disinhibition. The sad truth is, when people feel they are anonymous, they feel almost invincible. Many have completely abandoned their morals, and as a result, often forget that there is in fact a living, breathing human being on the other end of the screen receiving their unnecessary torment and abuse. Such negativity is growing more and more prevalent amongst teenagers according to statistics. Worryingly, 81% of teens have said they partake in cyberbullying because the lack of face-to-face communication makes them see it as a harmless 'joke'. As a result, not only are we more likely to partake in such derogatory behaviours, but we are also more likely to “disown responsibility” for them [18]

This is further emphasised by an article written about cyberbullying amongst children and adolescents, “Being anonymous allows for reduced accountability, which may encourage inappropriate behavior online.” [19] This lack of regulation and authority gives us a whole new conception of power. We feel we can say or do whatever we want, all the while forgetting that whilst “the typed text provides the mask” [20], by no means is this mask full proof.

The anonymity that the online world provides leads many to feel like they are invincible in this communicative platform.

The toxicity which has far too often emerged from anonymity online has led to debates as to whether anyone should be allowed to be anonymous in the online world. As social media becomes more and more a part of the “fabric” of day to day life, we are being asked to place an extreme amount of trust in these communication platforms. Thus, we want to be certain we know who we are talking to, hence why anonymity is becoming far less desirable than it once was. The “always on” culture in which we are immersed means that “our various online personas are all digital breadcrumbs of the same persona; different symptoms of our same core self.” [21]. In other words, the unidentifability that anonymity seemingly promotes is nothing more than an illusion.

Studies such as the one carried out by Fox, Crux and Young Lee [22], emphasise that no matter how much those who are for online anonymity stress the idea of the digital self being a “compartmentalised self” which is separate from our offline identities, this is simply not the case. Their work proved that toxic and sexist behaviour carried out online subsequently increased levels of sexist attitudes offline.

Anonymity online, therefore, is like a ticking time-bomb. For, no matter how much we try to convince ourselves otherwise, it is only a matter of time before our trail of ‘digital breadcrumbs’ come full circle and reveal our true identities. The moment where our anonymous mask slips once and for all.

Invisibility[edit]

Being invisible online gives the illusion we can't be detected.


Another factor which leads to online disinhibition is invisibility. By putting up a metaphorical and physical barrier, users are met with far less pressures in regards to how they present themselves. [23] Unlike in the physical world, we don’t have to worry about how we look, how we sound. All that matters is how well we can write.

Furthermore, not having to see other peoples reaction and, more importantly, knowing that they cannot see you means that our inhibitions are significantly lowered for the social cues which dominate the real world are erased.[24]

The invisibility of the online world is therefore an opportunity to reinvent oneself.[25] Whilst this can be beneficial in some cases, it can also lead to misinterpretations of the identity you are trying to convey. Yet, at the end of the day, although not foolproof, people take comfort in knowing that the invisible cloak they can wear online makes it that little bit harder for their online actions to be linked back to them, unlike in the real world.

Asynchronicity[edit]

Emails are the perfect place for online disinhibition because they are asynchronous.

For the most part, computer-mediated communication is text based. As a result, immediacy is fundamentally lacking in this communication platform. These technologies alter our relationship with space and time, providing us with a gift of time that is simply impossible in the offline world. We are granted an opportunity to pause, reflect and thoroughly plan out what it is we wish to say before we press the send button. In other words, we can concoct the ‘perfect’ response through mediated communication, without having to worry about the mishaps that occur with the pressures that emerge from communicating face-to-face [26]. Suler argues that this furthermore allows for one to portray “deeper expressions of benign and toxic disinhibition that avert social norms.” [27]


This is further promoted by the ideas outline by Sherry Turkle in regards to the ‘tethered self.’ [28] Being that we live in a world where we are never far from some form of communicative device. Such accessibility means we have more time to muse over what we want to say, and therefore, in the online world, time is not such a burden. Yet, this is not always a positive thing, for our reliance on the ability to edit and modify our self-presentations means we are becoming more and more secluded from the realities of the offline world. Face-to-face communication is a dying trend, with people becoming increasingly prone to avoiding it wherever possible [29]. Hence the irony of online disinhibition in this sense is that, at the same time we are being encouraged to be more open, we are further reclining from the idea of communicating without the assistance of a screen.

Solipsistic Introjection[edit]

Through Solipsistic Introjection, we create an internal dialogue that, whilst feeling incredibly real, is just as fictitious as a play we would see at the theatre.

Solipsistic Introjection is the idea that due to the lack of vocal communication in the online world, our minds begin to fill in the blanks, providing an internal voice to the text being consumed. If said text is coming from someone we know, we imagine their voice in our heads. However, if it is coming from someone we don’t know, we assign them a voice based on the personality traits they have expressed via their online persona. In other words, online communication means that “cyberspace may become a stage, and we are merely players.” [30]

However, logging off does not draw the final curtain on this internal performance. We often find ourselves daydreaming about them long after we have logged off. This comes with numerous dangers, for being that we are given a ‘safe space’ to carry out these conversations - which feel incredibly real in our own minds, we are becoming more and more reluctant to express ourselves without the assistance of text-based communications. In other words, whilst to some extent solipsistic introjection does provide a feeling of confidence for us, “it distracts… from face-to-face communication.” ultimately making us more susceptible to online disinhibition.

Dissociative imagination[edit]

The freedom and fluidity of online platforms has led many users viewing the medium as “a kind of game with rules that do not apply to everyday living.” [31] This is what is known as Dissociative Imagination.

This diagram represents the idea of 'Mixed Reality' put forward by Milgram and Kishino which suggests a strong interrelation between the real and the virtual world

Immersing ourselves in the online world, we often forget that our actions can still have serious consequences offline. Commonly associated with fantasy/role playing games and toxic disinhibition, this factor illustrates the lack of responsibility many users take in regards to their online actions. Rather, they view them as no more real than the stories they read as kids.

However, this is far from the truth as seen by the case of Thomas Montgomery. After starting an online affair, which many like him would claim “"exists only in cyberspace" he began a double life. Yet, his justifications backfired on him when, after learning that his co-worker - in the real world - was also having an online affair with the same woman, Montgomery became so enraged that he shot him dead in the car park. Furthermore proving, “emotions don’t turn on when we log on and turn off when we log off.”

Minimisation of status and authority[edit]

The lack of face-to-face communication online ultimately reduces social context cues which dominate the offline world. This furthermore provides the illusion that the internet is an authority free zone. Being that we cannot see who we are communicating with in the same way that we can in person, it feels as though everyone is on a level playing field, ultimately abolishing social hierarchies and giving users a feeling of great power.

Social context cues are not as visible on text-based communications apps like Facebook Messenger.

Danah Boyd points out this behaviour is especially prevalent with teenagers who although “may be comfortable having strangers overhear their exchange, the sudden appearance of someone with social authority changes the context entirely.”[32] Thus, due to the fact that it is harder to see authority figures within many online platforms, many are guilty of straying from their moral inhibitions.

This has had many negative consequences, such as cyberbullying. Reinis Udris’ study into cyberbullying among high school students in Japan highlights that: “It is easy to write insulting things online, because there are no repercussions.” [33] This is ultimately helped by the anonymity that many online platforms provide [34], however, it does not always need to be a factor. The case of a prison official in Maryland who lost his job in 2015 after he posted on Facebook making fun of sexual assaults in prisons being a prime example. [35] Cases such as this one highlight the true dangers of online disinhibition. Although many would beg to differ, and although it may be harder to spot, authority does still exist on the internet. Allowing yourself to believe otherwise can have life shattering consequences.

Conclusion[edit]

This essay clearly demonstrates that whilst online disinhibition can have benign consequences by encouraging people to be more open and accepting online, it can also go in the opposite direction. However, either way one thing remains fundamentally clear. What we do online does not stay online. It travels with us every time we step away from the computer screen and, thus, can greatly impact our offline lives.

One's lack of inhibitions online clearly comes from a variety of factors as outline by Suler. Yet, the one which appears to present itself the most prevalently is the idea of anonymity. Being able to mask who we are online and furthermore feeling like we are not constantly being monitored in the same way we are offline, one feels motivated to abandon their morals in a way they would never dare to in the physical world. When used right, this can help us grow as individuals both on and offline. However, when used negatively, we are opening ourselves up to all kinds of backlash, for one thing is for certain; “although the internet may have provided an escapism from everyday life, it is mostly mimicking it.”

Further Reading[edit]

1. Lapidot-Lefler, N., & Barak, A. (2015). The benign online disinhibition effect: Could situational factors induce self-disclosure and prosocial behaviors? in Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, 9(2), article 3. doi: 10.5817/CP2015-2-3

2. Tidwell, L., Walther, J. (2002). Computer-Mediated Communication Effects on Disclosure, Impressions, and Interpersonal Evaluations in Human Communication Research, 28(3), 317-348

3. McKenna, K., Bargh, J. (1998). Coming Out in the Age of the Internet: Identity “Demarginalization” Through Virtual Group Participation in Small Groups: Key Readings in Social Psychology, 450-469

4. Jourard, S. M., & Friedman, R. (1970). Experimenter-subject "distance" and self-disclosure in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 15(3), 278-282.

5. Suler, J. (1999). To Get What You Need: Healthy and Pathological Internet Use in CyberPsychology & Behaviour, 2(5), 385-393

6. Ibrahim Y. (2018) Self-Love and Self-Curation Online in Production of the 'Self' in the Digital Age, 37-56

7. Wallace P. (1999). The Psychology of the Internet, Cambridge University Press

8. Vilanova, F., Beria, F.M., Costa, A.B., Silvia, H.K. (2017). Deindividuation: From Le Bon to the social identity model of deindividuation effects in Cogent Psychology, 1-21

9. Oldberg, C.J.A. (2016). Organizational Doxing: Disaster on the Doorstep, journal on telecommunications and high technology law, 15(1), 181-206.

References[edit]


  1. Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect, Cyberpsychology & behaviour, 7(3)
  2. Moore, R. (2010). Social Structure and Social Learning Theory. Cybercrime: Investigating high-technology computer crime. (pp.269-71). United Kingdom: Andersen Press
  3. Suler, J. (2016). The disinhibited self. Psychology of the digital age: Humans become electric (pp. 99). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  4. Rideout, V., & Robb, M., B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. (p.3). San Fransisco: Common Sense. Retrieved from [8]
  5. Cheung, C. (2007). Identity and self-presentation on personal homepages. In D. Bell, & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader (Second ed., pp.274-83). Abington, Oxon: Routledge.
  6. Rideout, V., & Robb, M., B. (2018). Social media, social life: Teens reveal their experiences. (p.3). San Fransisco: Common Sense. Retrieved from [9]
  7. 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.
  8. Vandebosch, H. Van Cleemput, (2008) Defining Cyberbullying: A Qualitative Research into the Perceptions of Youngsters, Cyberpsychology & Behaviour, 11(4), 499-503.
  9. Offline Consequences of Online Victimization: School Violence and Delinquency by Sameer Hinduja Justin W. Patchin in Journal of School Violence, Vol. 6(3) 2007 p89-112
  10. Alavi, N. Reshetukha, T. Prost, E. Antoniak, K. Patel, C. Sajid, S, Groll, D. (2017). Relationship between Bullying and Suicidal Behaviour in Youth presenting to the Emergency Department, Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 26(2): p.71.
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  12. Slonje, R. & Smith, P. K. (2008). Cyberbullying: Another main type of bullying? Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 49, p.148
  13. Hinduja & Patchin, 2010 cited in Alavi, N. Reshetukha, T. Prost, E. Antoniak, K. Patel, C. Sajid, S, Groll, D. (2017). Relationship between Bullying and Suicidal Behaviour in Youth presenting to the Emergency Department, Journal of the Canadian Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 26(2): p.71.
  14. Khanna, P. Zavarsky, P. Lindskog, D. (2016) Experimental Analysis of Tools Used for Doxing and Proposed New Transforms to Help Organizations Protect against Doxing Attacks in Procedia Computer Science, 94, 459-464.
  15. Joinson, A. (2001) Self-disclosure in computer-mediated communication: The role of self-awareness and visual anonymity, European Journal of Social Psychology 31, 177-192.
  16. Joinson A. (2007) Disinhibition and the Internet in Psychology and the Internet : Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, and Transpersonal Implications, 75-92.
  17. Bernstein, M.S. Monroy-Hernández, A. Harry, D. André, P. Panovich, K. Vargas G. (2011). 4chan and /b/: An Analysis of Anonymity and Ephemerality in a Large Online Community, AAAI Publications, Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. p.50, 10/03/19 Retrieved from: [10]
  18. Suler, J. (2016). The disinhibited self. Psychology of the digital age: Humans become electric (p. 99). New York: Cambridge University Press.
  19. Twyman, K., Saylor, C., Taylor, L. A., & Comeaux, C. (2010). Comparing children and adolescents engaged in cyberbullying to matched peers. Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking, 13(2), Retrieved from: [11]
  20. Danet, B. (1998). Text as mask: Gender, play and performance on the internet In S. G. Jones (Ed.), Cybersociety 2.0 (2nd ed., p. 129). Chicago, USA: SAGE Publications.
  21. Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2015). How different are your online and offline personalities? The Guardian, Retrieved from [12]
  22. Fox, J. Cruz, C. & Young Lee, J. (2015). Perpetuating online sexism offline: Anonymity, interactivity, and the effects of sexist hashtags on social media. Computers in Human Behaviour, 52(1). pp. 436-442.
  23. Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect, Cyberpsychology & behaviour, 7(3)
  24. Lapidot-Lefler, N. & Barak, A. (2011). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition. Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2). pp. 434-443. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2011.10.014
  25. Cheung, C. (2007). Identity and self-presentation on personal homepages. In D. Bell, & B. M. Kennedy (Eds.), The cybercultures reader (Second ed., pp. 273-285). Abington, Oxon: Routledge.
  26. Henderson, S. Gilding, M. (2014).‘I’ve never clicked this much with anyone in my life’: trust and hyperpersonal communication in online friendships, New Media & Society, 6(4), p.487-506
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  33. Udris, R. (2014). {Cyberbullying among high school students in Japan: Development and validation of the Online Disinhibition Scale in Computers in Human Behavior, 41(0), p.253-261
  34. Lapidot-Lefler, N. (2012). Effects of anonymity, invisibility, and lack of eye-contact on toxic online disinhibition, Computers in Human Behavior, 28(2), p.434-443
  35. Social Media Stupidity Rolling Stone. 13 July 2015. Retrieved 16 March 2019.