Kate continues with her regular column for the quarterly Journal of the BACP Workplace Division.
This issue focuses on online disinhibition.
I’d like to introduce you to one of the core themes that apply to distance communication in whatever technology you are using. It’s called the “disinhibition effect” (Suler, 2004). It is very likely that you will recognise it and have experienced it both in and outside of the workplace in your day to day communications. It is the reason that we hear such distressing stories in the media about suicide as a result of cyberbullying, or why online dating can be so successful, and why flamewars – heated arguments online with personal attacks occurring – spring up so quickly.
The disinhibition effect is what happens when we are not in the physical presence of another person, which is increasingly the case with every day communication in light of the technological tools we now have at our disposal. How often do you find yourself dashing off an email to a work colleague, texting your partner from your mobile, or updating your Facebook status these days? Whether you are an avid user of technology or not it is unlikely that your sole means of communication is verbal and face-to-face. Whatever means of technology mediated communication you are using, you are going to be less inhibited than you would be if you were in the physical presence of the other person.
The truth is people behave differently online. The perceived distance in technology mediated communication gives us a sense of safety – that you can say – and do – whatever you like with little or no consequence. The insidious behaviour of bullies in the playground has a much broader scope when they have access to strangers (or friends) online, and the apparent anonymity the Internet can give us creates a power dynamic that makes a personal attack seem more acceptable to make. The recent threats of rape and bomb planting to high-profile women in the media are a classic example of the worst side of disinhibited behaviour.
Download the PDF: Cyberculture in the workplace: a beginner’s guide