Sunday, May 29, 2011

Teen Internet Addiction: The Disinhibition Effect

We are all equals: cyberspace and the minimization of authority
This is the final blog on the topic of cyberspace and disinhibited teen behavior. When teens are online a person's status in the face-to-face world may not be known or it may not have as much impact as it does in three-dimensional reality. If the teen cannot see a person or the surroundings of a person, they may not know if that person's title carries authority or if they are an ordinary person lounging around at home in front of the computer. Even if teens do know something about a person's off-line status and power, that elevated position may have little impact on their online presence and influence. Teens tend to view everyone on the internet as an equals, as having a mutual and shared opportunity to give voice to their ideas and opinions. According to a typical teen, everyone, regardless of status, wealth, race, and gender starts off on a level playing field in cyberspace.

Teens are reluctant to say what they think when they stand before an authority figure. A fear of disapproval and punishment from "on high" dampens the spirit when in close proximity to power figure. But online, in what feels like a peer relationship, teens experience authority as minimized and thus they are much more willing to  speak out or misbehave. Teens see everyone as equal in cyberspace. Teens point to the fact that the Internet itself is engineered with no centralized authority or control. Teens see themselves as having endless potential for creating new environments and as result see themselves as independent minded explorers. This atmosphere contributes to a limited sense of authority and to increased disinhibited behavior.

The key issue with respect to teens and disinhibited behavior in cyberspace is to facilitate a dialogue about choices. The fact that cyberspace can contribute to disinhibited behavior does not mean parents or authority figures should clamp down on cyber expression. Rather, the better strategy is to point out how the unique and novel dynamics of cyberspace contribute to choices that the teen may live to regret. As has been noted in prior blogs, the best way to address online behavior is to empower teens with education and appropriate choices.

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