Online Behavior Probed for “Disinhibition Effect”

It’s no secret that people may act differently depending upon their environment, but the widespread use of the internet may be encouraging certain kinds of behaviors among users, breaking down typical barriers that prevent rudeness and cruelty. At least, this would seem to be the case in a recent clash between a prominent political figure who had planned to speak in Canada and a group of angry internet surfers who made their opinions about the figure clear. These opinions have been described as taking on the tone of outright insults, an issue which may contribute to concerns such as cyber-bullying.

In reaction to the incident, a professor at the Universite de Montreal has noted that the perceived anonymity of posting on the web allows users to feel more at ease when sounding off on strong emotions. This behavior does not necessarily limit itself to cases of true anonymity, however. As pointed out in the press, some internet venues involve screen names and other identifying attributes that clearly reflect the name, and sometimes even the location, of the person being studied. Nevertheless, it is thought that the lack of visual clues and interactive body language results in the feeling of “online disinhibition” solely when others are not physically present.

The professor also points out, however, that the internet has made it simpler than ever before for individuals to meet and bond with others, and such encounters may result in healthy exchanges or even a relationship. The use of psychotherapy and other types of treatment has also been increasingly brought to the medium of the internet, with scores of private practices and clinical professionals offering their credentials and personal philosophies online. While the relationship between the internet and psychotherapeutic services may change over time, it is clear that the internet may prove instrumental in stirring up behavioral trouble –and addressing it with proper care.

© Copyright 2010 by By John Smith, therapist in Bellingham, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • John Lee LMHC

    John Lee LMHC

    April 13th, 2010 at 10:02 AM

    People do need to be careful in what they say as the author is correct a person could feel untraceable however whenever a person visits a site the computers address is left behind. This would be expecially important with personal threats. Many people are being prosecuted for threatening behavior on the “Net!

    I also agree with the author that a person’s defense mechanism is lower when on the net. Especially in the safety and security in one’s home. Lowered social anxiety, feelings of safety and security lower inhibitions enabling an otherwise shy person to interact on the “Net”. The same person who interacts ont he Net could be the person at a paraty who avoids people and stays in the safety of few friends.

    I am not generalizing this to everybody. Many or most people can socialize both on the net and at parties. However, people with social anxiety feel more comfortable interacting on the net.

  • Jeremy Snape

    Jeremy Snape

    April 13th, 2010 at 8:34 PM

    When a person stands up to speak,especially so if something filthy or against someone, he or she will be opposed by feelings as to what others may think of him or her and other societal hinderances…now while these hinderances are absent in the cyber world, each one of us must learn etiquette, whether we are being watched or not,whether we are seen or are anonymous… but most people do not do so and hence end up being extremely aggressive and abusive online and often get into trouble with the cyber police.

  • Nick Parsons

    Nick Parsons

    April 13th, 2010 at 11:33 PM

    After reading your blog post and the article you summarized, I had some thoughts. One was that the “online disinhibition effect” must be much of what fuels the popularity of websites like where one has an anonymous online avatar. There, a person can “live” and act out a fantasy parallel life in a virtual world.

    The article also made me think of how online disinhibition is probably one of the factors that is contributing to the booming online pornography and gambling businesses. Having anonymous access 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in the privacy of one’s own home to pornography sites, sexual-webcam social networking sites, and gambling sites decreases one’s inhibition to use them. This easy, private, anonomous access increases the chance that people could get desensitized to these behaviors, becoming over-involved or addicted to them. I have worked with a number of clients who have struggled with addiction to online pornography. It can be debilitating, and the easy private access makes it a difficult issue.

    The other thought I had was about the kind of trance we get into on the computer. Hours can go by without noticing it. I don’t know whether researchers have studied this state of consciousness, but it definintely seems trance-like and kind of disembodied. I wonder if it is easier to be disinhibited in that kind of state.

    Anyway, thanks for bringing this interesting article to our attention.

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