Why are you different online?

7 December 2022by crbwebsite0

Online, anonymous

The psychology of online behaviour


Have you ever shared something online and cringed later wondering why you said that?


What happens to make you different online compared to real life?

Take a look around any social media site and its pretty easy to find posts with very open personal traumatic experiences shared to their network. Additionally seeing a twitter or Facebook spat with several heated exchanges that end up in insults is – normal. Often the topic can be quite benign but somehow there is a strong emotional response.

It’s hard to think that these exchanges, insults and disclosures would ever happen to this depth to wide audiences in real life.

However, due to the ‘online disinhibition effect’ you may create a totally different personality where you are happy to self-disclose and react intensely. Afterwards you can be left with feelings of guilt, shame, anxiety and insecurity as you feel like you’ve said too much.

What is online disinhibition?

There are two ways to categorise disinhibition:

Benign Disinhibition

Which only affects the person posting online, and is not harmful to others generally, for example:

  • when you share very personal disclosures about yourself or reveal secret desires, fears or emotions.
  • When you conduct unusual acts of kindness and generosity to help others.
Toxic Disinhibition

Which removes the boundaries of basic society, for example

  • rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats.
  • visiting and experiencing the dark side of the internet including, extreme pornography, crime, and violence – areas that would never be explored in real life.

Being less restrained and more open online can be positive and help with understanding and self development. Through benign disinhibition and sharing more about yourself you may resolve interpersonal issues or explore new emotions.

By contrast, toxic disinhibition may simply be a ‘rant and release’ with no aim, or an acting out of unpleasant needs. There is no personal growth or development.

However, like most things in life it’s not that black and white. For example, there could be times when hostile words in a chat encounter could be a therapeutic breakthrough. Alternatively, in an increasingly intimate e-mail relationship, you may reveal personal details far quicker than in real life, then later regret your self-disclosure – leaving you feeling exposed, vulnerable, or ashamed.

Which makes it difficult to distinguish between positive or negative disinhibition. It’s a very individual blurred line that’s difficult to categorise.

So what are the factors that reduce your psychological barriers and make you behave differently online ?

Causes of online disinhibition
‘You don’t know me’

Basically, it’s easy to be anonymous online. You can choose to show no personal details in your username and email address.  You decide what you tell others about you – and if it’s true or not.

Anonymity is a key factor in creating the disinhibition effect. You can separate ‘online life’ from ‘real life’ and real identity, creating less vulnerability about sharing personal details or behaving negatively. This separation of identity means the online self becomes compartmentalized, and can feel ‘outside of yourself’. Thus, resulting in the denial of responsibility for negative online behaviour because ‘it’s not like you’.

‘You can’t see me’

Communicating online via text feels invisible as no one sees you. This happens on websites, message boards, or chat rooms and is especially easy to feel invisible when you can observe the writings of others and not have to comment. This offers courage and cover to go to places and do things you wouldn’t in real life. Being physically invisible increases the disinhibition effect. There is no concern about how you look or sound when typing text. You don’t see the subtle disapproval signs about what you say, offering freedom to say whatever you want without fear of judgement.

‘See you later’

You don’t always get an immediate response when posting online or sending messages. It’s not real time communication, and comments are made weeks later. When you don’t have to cope with someone’s immediate reaction – this creates disinhibition.  By not receiving an immediate response that influences you to follow the standard social norms, it’s easy to continue with online behaviour which can develop into benign or toxic disinhibition. Without immediate feedback you can ‘message and run’, reducing emotional discomfort.

‘It’s all in your head’

Solipsistic introjection means text communication without face to face expression. When reading you naturally assign a voice to the words and strangely it can feel like you are having a conversation with yourself. This can lead to altering self boundaries as the text conversation feels like it’s just in your head and therefore safe to disclose things you wouldn’t usually. This can evolve into montages and fantasy role plays as reality becomes your own imagination in that moment. All of which encourage disinhibition because when we talk just to our self, it feels safer than talking with others.

‘It’s just a game’

Dissociative imagination means to become so absorbed in the communication that it’s easy to engage in vivid imagination. Consequently this confuses fantasy with reality and results automatic actions. For example, it is easy to dissociate or escape online when you have created an imaginary character. That character is still ‘you’ but consciously or unconsciously it can feel like the imaginary character lives in a different world, with other online personas in a fantasy dimension away from real world responsibilities. It’s a split between online fiction and online fact and can represent an online world experienced as a game which then carries different rules or norms compared to the real world. Once the ‘game’ has been left and you are no longer online, it becomes easy to claim no responsibility for your actions. As it all happened in the ‘make- believe play world’, it has nothing to do with reality.

‘Your rules don’t apply here’

Nobody is in charge online. Regardless of your position in society, online everyone has an equal opportunity to share their opinion. It is in the communication, persistence and quality of ideas that becomes the biggest influencing factor. Without an authority present, opinions can be freely shared minus fear of disapproval or punishment. Without a consequence its much easier to speak out or misbehave.

Does disinhibition affect us all the same?

The online disinhibition effect is not the only factor that determines how much people self-disclose or act out on the internet. It’s as individual as how you feel, what your needs are and how susceptible to disinhibition you are. This includes personality styles and if you lean in  towards drama or are more restrained. Depending on your personality you could sway a little because of these factors or have dramatic behavioural changes.

In conclusion

Due to the disinhibition effect, you can be different online and find rapid disclosure easy. This can be in one to one messages, group chats or a personal post on social media. Getting it off your chest and putting it out there can make you think you’ll feel better – however the reality can be that you are left feeling shame and vulnerability as what is said cannot be unsaid. Once you have posted online, you have no control of your information or know where it will end up.

Being aware of this effect can help you consider who you are online, how you behave, what you want to share – and to what cost.

If you feel some online situations are too much or uncomfortable then feel free to ‘leave the party’. At times it may feel like losing face, but your emotional safety will thank you for it.

Exploring your boundaries and self esteem are helpful reflections when considering your online safety.

If these themes have resonate with you, please click on the contact page to get in touch and book a time to explore further.

About the author: Chris Boobier is the owner of CRB Counselling specialising in anxiety, trauma & loss. Supporting adults and adolescents, she is passionate about helping people be their authentic self through counselling.

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