This article originally appeared as Suler, J.R. (2004). The psychology of text relationships.
In Online Counseling: a manual for mental health professionals (R. Kraus, J. Zack & G. Striker, Eds). London: Elsevier Academic Press.
It’s well known that people say and do things in cyberspace that they ordinarily wouldn’t in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel more uninhibited, express themselves more openly. Researchers call this the disinhibition effect. It’s a double-edged sword. Sometimes people share very personal things about themselves. They reveal secret emotions, fears, wishes, show unusual acts of kindness and generosity, and as a result intimacy develops. Clinicians dare to make important interventions that they would have withheld face-to-face. On the other hand, the disinhibition effect may not be so benign. Out spills rude language, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred, even threats. People act out in all ways imaginable. Intimacy develops too rapidly resulting in regret, anxiety, and a hasty termination of the relationship. Clinicians say something better left unsaid. On the positive side, disinhibition indicates an attempt to understand and explore oneself, to work through problems and find better ways of relating to others. And sometimes it is simply a blind catharsis, an acting out of unsavory needs and wishes without any personal growth at all. Earlier in this article I cited an e-mail in which a woman, a complete stranger to me, intimately described her relationship with her online lover. Consider also this e-mail from another stranger:
i am so suicidal every day that i have to tell somebody i would die and it would be all my parents fault for beating me every day and my classmates faults for making my life miserable every day and my dealers fault for going out of town and my fault for being manic depressive and suicidal and it would all be yalls fault cause your fuckin site is to god damn confusing and i couldnt talk to anybody. thank you for your time please feel just fucking free to e-mail me back
What causes this online disinhibition? What is it about cyberspace that loosens the psychological barriers that normally block the release these inner feelings and needs? Several factors are operating, many of them driven by the qualities of text communication that I’ve described previously. For some people, one or two of these factors produces the lion’s share of the disinhibition effect. In most cases these factors interact with each other, supplement each other, resulting in a more complex, amplified effect.
Anonymity (You Don’t Know Me) – As you move around the internet, most of the people you encounter can’t easily tell who you are. People only know what you tell them about yourself. If you wish, you can keep your identity hidden. As the word “anonymous” indicates, you can have no name – at least not your real name. That anonymity works wonders for the disinhibition effect. When people have the opportunity to separate their actions from their real world and identity, they feel less vulnerable about opening up. Whatever they say or do can’t be directly linked to the rest of their lives. They don’t have to own their behavior by acknowledging it within the full context of who they “really” are. When acting out hostile feelings, the person doesn’t have to take responsibility for those actions. In fact, people might even convince themselves that those behaviors “aren’t me at all.” This is what many clinicians would call dissociation.