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"Toxic Disinhibition" - why people may be more toxic and mean on the internet!

Dearest ladies,

*ahem*...sorry, nervous tick. (please excuse me for a moment while I go and put on my knee pads in order to kneel on the floor and dramatically beg for forgiveness for a post that I'm sure is longer than...my life.) You see let me explain...

So, with Hey Abigail's new makeover (the site, not me) and relaunch it allows you girls to interact more with each other and me on your profiles, message boards, comments, etc. Yet, with that comes the possibility for more bullying and negative comments. And from the questions I get from you guys I know that that is the last thing you need more of in your life. Hey Abigail should be an escape (cabana, blue waters, pool boys and all). So, I took upon myself to be be Dora the explorer for us and in my research I realized that we may actually be more prone to act more negatively online than in person and the name of these effect is....(caution: use of the following word at parties is likely to get you either respect or thrown in the pool) toxic disinhibition.

So, with the guidance of my Professor in my internet class at UCLA I conducted an experiment...for you! Some of you even participated in the study. So feel free to skim through and read as you will. But the main point is that if we are aware that toxic disinhibition happens, we can actively try and fight against it. Knowledge is power (ah..I never thought I'd be the one to use that saying...crap)

Enjoy! This one's for you.

And here is a link to a video about it as well for all you visual learners out there :)

http://www.heyabigail.com/test/the-hangout/62-abigail/videos/video/11-hey-abigails-video-on-cyberbullying.html

Remember we can't do it alone,

Abigail

Abstract

Toxic disinhibition, coined by John Suler, makes online participants more likely be rude, less inhibited, and more likely to engage more negatively than they would in real life. This study researched whether people were aware of this effect as they predicted their hypothesized responses to various vignettes. The study shows that “positive illusions,” may play a role in participants responses and as a result participants may unknowingly perpetuate negative online behavior.



Toxic Disinhibition, the Silent Killer

INTRO
Online bullying is increasing at a rapid rate, and the prevalence has caused the creation of the new term, cyberbullying. In a recent study by psychologists at UCLA nearly three in four teenagers admitted to being bullied over the internet in a 12-month period. (Stuart Wolpert, 2008) However online deviant behavior doesn’t stop with cyberbullying. Internet scams can be found on the internet as well as people viewing material and going places on the internet that they would never venture to outside of the internet. The question of what exactly causes people to engage in ways that they may not normally behave outside of the internet is one that is deeply examined by John Suler. 
Suler introduced the concept, “toxic disinhibition,” the idea that internet users are more likely to act in negative ways such as being rude, making threats, or visiting the dark places of the internet which can include pornography. (Fisher, W. A., & Barak, A. 2001) He says there are at least six factors involved with toxic disinhibition which include dissociative anonymity, invisibility, asynchronous behavior, solipsistic introjection, disassociated imagination, and the minimization of status and authority. Dissociative anonymity means that on the internet users can easily conceal their identity so they feel more free to be different than they would be in real life. The participant may even start believing that they are their online identity which can result in their real persona being detached from their online behavior. Invisibility is described as the participant being able to go places on the internet without being tracked. When users are invisible they don’t have to worry about the way they look or sound and as a result they don’t have to censor thoughts. Since others are invisible as well, their comments are not met with any physical facial expressions of disapproval or hurt which may discourage certain behaviors.
Asynchronous behavior allows participants to not have to deal with people in real time. So, a user could go on a message board and leave a nasty remark but people may not see it for another week, so the effects are not immediate. Kali Munro, an online psychoanalysis, describes the behavior as, “an emotional hit and run” (K. Munro, unpublished observations, 2003).
Solipsistic introjection means that since there are no face-to-face cues, it mitigates boundaries. The user can use their imagination to create the person on the other end of the computer to become whoever they want them to be. They can also project onto people based on needs, personal expectations, and wishes. This ties into the disassociated imagination because if a user feels that they created and self generated the relationships with people they engage with, they start feeling as if they are operating in another realm other than real life. This can cause people to dissociate their online actions with real life. So, they justify poor online behavior because it’s not perceived as their real identity. Minimization of status and authority is also a  contributing factor in disinhibition. Online people can feel a lack of authority figures or status and it is more of an even playing field. The online environment can feel more like a peer relationship not governed by authorities so they are more likely to misbehave and act out because they feel more powerful.
Participants on the internet are likely to share more freely and feel more disinhibited because there is no face to face communication. Joinson (2001) did three studies that examined computer-mediated communication and self disclosure. He found that when the participants knew that that they were visually anonymous they will disclose information more significantly. In one of the studies they manipulated the levels of video-conferencing cameras so that people felt they were being seen or not seen. Overall it was found that there was more self disclosure in computer-mediated activities as opposed to face to face interactions. Self disclosure can be positive in some cases, but it can also produce negative behavior from participants on the internet. People can behave in ways that they normally wouldn’t and as a result, can use the internet to act out with little to no personal growth resulting from their interactions.
Research supports the idea that people tend to act less inhibited when they are able to hide behind a computer screen or webcam. However what hasn’t been studied is whether people are aware that toxic disinhibition may be occuring. Are people aware that they may act differently online than they may in person? I am studying not what people actually do, but how people perceive that they will act. This will shed light on the issue of awareness of people’s perception of negative behavior. Since previous literature hasn’t explicitly researched this, I believe that participants perceptions will be similar to what research has shown is most likely to occur.
My hypotheses are:
1.) Participants communicating face to face will rank the lowest in confrontation
2.) Participants communicating via webcam will rank the second lowest in confrontation
3.) Participants communicating via email will rank the third lowest in confrontation 
4.) Participants communicating via discussion board where their name and email is present will rank fourth lowest in confrontation
5.) Participants communicating via anonymous discussion board will rank the fifth lowest in confrontation.

Methods
I used Survey Monkey to create my surveys. I then distributed the links to the surveys via Facebook. I created “events,” for each survey and invited people in my network to the different surveys so that people would only take the survey once. The people in my network consist of 1,159 people; Some of whom I have close connection and some I have met once. Most people in my network live in Michigan or in Los Angeles. I also recruited subjects from the Communication Studies 154 class by emailing enrolled students.
In my study I used series of vignettes to measure how people perceived they would respond if they were provoked in a negative way or treated poorly. Vignettes were used to more accurately measure participants responses by simulating a pseudo real life scenario. Each of the vignettes had five different communication mediums that I varied so that I could measure if there was change in their response because of the change of medium. The varying mediums were face to face interactions, emails, discussion boards, anonymous message boards, and communicating over a webcam. I created five vignettes which included these five different mediums that I was measuring. I kept virtually everything the same in each vignette question, while only changing the medium that the encounter took place in, and making small adjustments accordingly. This allowed me to measure if the different mediums the communication happened through would affect the participants responses. So, each survey had five different vignettes with one of each of the five communication methods. I did five different surveys to minimize ordering effects, because if I had the same vignette and only changed the condition of the medium, the novelty of the question may wear off quickly and effect the results. At the end of each vignette the participants were asked to rank how they would respond to the scenario. The options were, non confrontational, slightly confrontational, highly confrontational, or extremely confrontational.
In forming my questions I did a pre test, got feedback, and found some problems in my survey. I had the word, “friend,” in some vignettes and not in others so I realized that this may cause some inconsistency in the data and I removed the word from all vignettes. I also decided to make sure that the word, “anonymous” was present in the anonymous discussion board questions. The following were the final surveys for each of the five conditions in my survey. Each of the five surveys had a question from each condition.

The face to face questions asked were the following:
1.)You are walking down the street when a group of people pass you. After they pass you they look back and say, “Go to Hell!” Your response is most likely to be:
2.)You are speaking with someone face to face and they start mocking you. They condescendingly chuckle and say, “That doesn’t make sense. So, you say you graduated middle school? Give me the name of your teacher, because they are in major trouble. Try your dictionary to get acquainted with a proper way of speaking.” 
Your response is most likely to be:
3.)You are chatting with a group of people face to face. You say something and someone tells everyone else that you lied about something you said when in fact you didn’t.
Your response is most likely to be:
4.)You are talking with someone face to face. They overtly lie to you in the conversation. What they don’t know, is that you know that it’s a lie. 
Your response is most likely to be:
5.) You are walking down the street and make eye contact with someone and accidentally bump into them. They are agitated and say, “your an idiot. back off right now, or else!”
Your response is most likely to be:

The email questions asked were the following:
1.) You are emailing back and forth with a friend. The conversation gets heated and they say, “your an idiot. Back off right now, or else!” Your response (via email) is most likely to be:
2.) You receive an email from someone. In the email they overtly lie to you. What they don’t know, is that you know that it’s a lie. You email them back. 
Your response (via email) is most likely to be:
3.) You send an email to someone. They reply (with an implied condescending chuckle) and say, “That doesn’t make sense. So, you say you graduated middle school? Give me the name of your teacher, because they are in major trouble. Try your dictionary to get acquainted with a proper way of speaking.” Your response (via email) is most likely to be:
4.) You receive an e-mail from someone. The email is heated and within the email they say, “Go to Hell!”
Your response (via email) is most likely to be:

5.) You are included in a group email and you are all emailing back and forth. You write an email to everyone and get a response back from someone who emailed everyone and CC’ed you, saying that you lied about something you said when in fact you didn’t. 
Your response (via email) is most likely to be:


The webcam questions asked were the following:
1.)You are Skyping with someone and they start mocking you. They condescendingly chuckle and say, “That doesn’t make sense. So, you say you graduated middle school? Give me the name of your teacher, because they are in major trouble. Try your dictionary to get acquainted with a proper way of speaking.” Your response is most likely to be:
2.) You are talking via webcam to someone. The conversation gets heated and they say, “your an idiot. Back off right now, or else!”
Your response is most likely to be:
3.) You just met someone in a chat room and they want to Skype. You agree and when you Skype the conversation gets heated and they say, “Go the Hell!”
Your response is most likely to be:
4.) You are chatting with three people via Skype. You chat for a while when one person tells everyone else that you lied about something you said when in fact you didn’t. 
Your response is most likely to be:
5.) You are on Skype, video chatting with someone. In the middle of the conversation they lie to you. What they don’t know, is that you know that it’s a lie. 
Your response is most likely to be:

The discussion board questions were the following:
1.) You are posting on a message board. You have a profile and your name and email appears after each post. You start a conversation and someone overtly lies to you in the conversation. What they don’t know, is that you know that it’s a lie. Your response is most likely to be:
2.) You are on a live (text only) chat on a website. You are posting on a message board. You have a profile and your posts show your name and email. You chat for a while with people on the message board. One person on the board tells everyone else that you lied about something you said when in fact you didn’t. 
Your response is most likely to be:
3.) You are on a message board. You have a profile and your name and email appears after each post. You start a conversation with someone and the conversation gets heated. They say, “your an idiot. Back off right now, or else!”
Your response is most likely to be:
4.) You are on a website. You have a profile and your name and email appears after each post. While chatting with someone on the site they start mocking you. They condescendingly chuckle and say, “That doesn’t make sense. So, you say you graduated middle school? Give me the name of your teacher, because they are in major trouble. Try your dictionary to get acquainted with a proper way of speaking.”
5.) You are on a live text only chat on a website. You have a profile and your name and email appears after each post. The conversation gets heated and someone tells you to, “Go the Hell!”
Your response is most likely to be:

The anonymous discussion board questions were the following:
1.) You are on a message board anonymously with a pseudonym (Ex:sparklegirl09.) You chat for a while and then someone on the board tells everyone else that you lied about something you said when in fact you didn’t. Your response is most likely to be:
2.) You are on a message board and posting with an anonymous pseudonym (Ex:sparklegirl09.) You engage in a conversation for a while. The conversation gets heated and someone says, “go to Hell!”
Your response is most likely to be:
3.) You posting on a message board as an anonymous user with a pseudonym (Ex:soccerguy09.) You start a conversation with someone and they overtly lie to you in the conversation. What they don’t know, is that you know that it’s a lie.
Your response is most likely to be:
4.) You are on a message board and posting anonymously with a pseudonym (Ex:sparklegirl09.) You start a conversation with someone and the conversation gets heated. They say, “your an idiot. Back off right now, or else!”
Your response is most likely to be:
5.) You are visiting a website. You are on a message board and posting anonymously with a pseudonym (Ex:sparklegirl09.) While chatting with someone they start mocking you. They condescendingly chuckle and say, “That doesn’t make sense. So, you say you graduated middle school? Give me the name of your teacher, because they are in major trouble. Try your dictionary to get acquainted with a proper way of speaking.”
Your response is most likely to be:

Results
There was a total of sixty-three participants divided among five surveys. Survey one had fifteen participants, survey two had eleven participants, survey three had thirteen participants, survey four had fourteen participants, and survey five had ten. To compare the different conditions I grouped all the questions from the same communication medium together. So, I grouped all the face to face questions together, similarly I grouped the email questions, discussion board questions, anonymous discussion board, and webcam questions together. I then took each of the five different groups and found the averages. The responses in the survey were given correlating numbers instead of letters (IE: A, B, C, and D). The number one represents non confrontational, two represents slightly confrontational, three represent highly confrontational, and four represents extremely confrontational.
For all the face to face interactions, which I predicted would be the least confrontational, the average was 1.9. The next predicted condition was Skype which averaged 2 and the email condition averaged the same, 2. The discussion board condition averaged 1.9 and the anonymous discussion board averaged 1.9.

 

Discussion
There appears to be absolutely no relationship between the different conditions. Email and Skype both averaged 2.0 and the rest of the three conditions all averaged 1.9. This shows that all the conditions averaged almost the exact same response. Because of this, none of the predicted hypothesis were correct.
However, the data does reveal some significant information. The survey does not measure the participants actual behavior. Instead it measures the participants perception of themselves and how they believe that they would respond in certain situations. So, the fact that all the participants averaged a score of between 1.9 and 2.0 is significant. This shows that all the participants believed, on average, that in various situations they would respond in a way that was between non confrontational and slightly confrontational. It’s possible that participants regarded this as the “ideal” response. They may not have considered it ideal to not defend yourself and to be non confrontational, so the slightly confrontational may appear to be the ideal response.

The averages between the conditions are almost exactly the same, and this is significant as well. This shows that people do not think that they would respond differently across the different conditions. So, people do not believe that they would act differently behind a mediated device than they would in person.
This however is not consistent with experiments which have shown actual behavior of participants tend to be less inhibited when they are able to hide behind a medium as opposed to interacting face to face. The findings are consistent however, with research that shows that people do tend to report more positive judgements of themselves which may have caused people to report predictions of their own behavior as more positive than they may actually have behaved in the situation. The term, “positive illusions” was coined in 1988 (Taylor and Brown). A positive illusions simply means the unrealistically positive attitudes people believe about themselves. People tend to inflate their assessment of themselves. With this being said, this is also culturally dependent (Heine & Hamamura, 2007). Western cultures are very individualistic and therefore individuals are more prone to give more positive reflections of themselves. East Asian cultures on the other hand are part of a collectivist culture where the group is promoted more than the individual. So, as a result they have not been found to self enhance. Since, my participants were almost completely from Western culture it helps supports why participants may have given a more positive view of themselves.

Conclusion
Literature has shown that people are more likely to engage in toxic disinhibition over the internet. Since there isn’t much literature on measuring people’s perception of toxic disinhibition, my hypothesis was that people would believe that they would be more apt to engage in toxic disinhibition the more they are removed from face to face interaction. My hypothesis was not confirmed. The data however showed that people seemed to believe that they would respond very mildly to all the situations in all of the different communicative mediums. This is important because it shows that the participants may have thought that the ideal response would be to respond less aggressively and thus give a more positive illusion of how they may respond. Since my study measured people within my network to generalize the study further future researchers should have more diverse and larger sample size.
The findings are significant however because if people are not aware that they may be more likely to be rude or impolite online, people may be more apt to fall victim to toxic disinhibition. On the other hand if people are aware of this effect, they may be more likely to be more careful online and be aware of their behavior.

 

References


Fisher, W. A., & Barak, A. (2001). Internet pornography: a social psychological perspective on Internet    psychotherapy. Journal of Sex Research 38:312–323.
Heine, S.J.; Hamamura, T. (2007). "In Search of East Asian Self-Enhancement". Personality and Social Psychology Review 11 (1): 4–27.
Joinson, A. (1998). Causes and implications of disinhibited behavior on the Internet. In: Gackenbach, J. (ed.), Psychology and the Internet: intrapersonal, interpersonal, and transpersonal implications. San Diego: Academic Press, pp. 43–60.
John Suler. CyberPsychology & Behavior. June 2004, 7(3): 321-326. doi:10.1089/1094931041291295.
Stuart Wolpert. (2008, October 02). Bullying of teenagers online in common, ucla psychologists report. Retrieved from http://newsroom.ucla.edu/portal/ucla/PRN-bullying-of-teenagers-online-is-64265.aspx
Taylor, S.E.; Brown, J. (1988). "Illusion and well-being: A social psychological perspective on mental health". Psychological Bulletin 103 (2): 193–210.

 

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