Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Teen Internet Addiction: The Disinhibition Effect

John Suler has written about a phenomenon he calls the "disinhibition effect" of cyberspace. Suler states internet users say and do things in cyberspace that ordinarily they would not say or do in face-to-face encounters. This is particularly true of teens, who feel they can utilize the internet to disclose their deepest fears, desires, and opinions. Teens often reveal secret emotions and wishes and offer and receive open and direct feedback in a manner that they would typically avoid in school or community settings. There is something about cyberspace that removes internal inhibition or barriers and can lead to the open, honest and creative expression of ideas and feelings as well as the disclosure of highly personal and sensitive information that should remain in the private sphere.

What causes cyberspace disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens psychological barriers that typically block the release of inner feelings and needs? Suler states several factors are at play. For some individuals one or two factors produce most of the disinhibition effect. However, in most cases, multiple factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complicated and amplified effect.

This blog will be divided into three parts in order to give careful consideration to each of the factors that lead to disinhibition.

Part one: 

Dissociative anonymity
As teenagers and adults travel through cyberspace they have the option of concealing their identity and thereby remain fully anonymous. Travelers through cyberspace can have no name--  or at least not a real name. They can disclose their age or choose not to conceal their age. The traveler can report intimate details and preferences, likes, and dislike -- or they can choose not to disclose anything of substance. The bottom line is anonymity works to escalate the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their behavior online from their real-world identity off-line, they feel less vulnerable about being disinhibited. Whatever they say or do in cyberspace cannot be directly linked to their lives off-line. For teenagers this means that they do not have to take responsibility for their behavior by acknowledging their identity. When acting out hostile feelings, for example, teens can bully, intimidate, and behave in provocative ways with full and complete immunity due to anonymity.

The disinhibition effect is escalated further by the choice to remain invisible in cyberspace. Through e-mail,  message boards, chat rooms, and blogs a person's identity in terms of their name, age, and even geographical location may be clear. However, whether using e-mail or chatting or blogging a person can choose to remain physically invisible. The opportunity to be invisible amplifies the disinhition effect because it eliminates the need to focus on how a person looks and sounds when they communicate. If we do not have to consider how our conversation partner's physical and auditory presentation when they communicate the nature of communication is fundamentally changed.

Being able to see a person frown, shake their head, look confused, bored, or upset influences how we communicate. As 70 % of communication is broadcast across non-verbal channels, the fact that internet communication can eliminate non-verbal communication allows a speaker to take risks and stretch boundaries in a way he/she would not if in a face to face encounter. By taking in broadband communication --   facial expressions, tone of voice, changes in emotional states -- our intention to communicate is constantly evolving as we modify our intentions based on the flow of information. In summary, if we are invisible and our conversation partners are invisible, communication tends to lack consideration of the consequences of our communicative intentions. By not being able to see and hear an individual, the door to disinhibited behavior swings wide open.

In the next blog we  will cover how asynchronicity and dissociative imagination  contribute to disinhibition in cyber space.

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