In today’s age communication on the internet has become a common phenomenon. In the current scenario when life has become very fast-paced, on-line interaction has become a very useful and convenient medium. Due to this, in the past few years, social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter have gained a lot of popularity.

Although on-line communication is found to be useful and convenient, a number of disadvantages have been associated with it. Many have regarded it to be a negative aspect for mental health as well as social skills. People who prefer face-to-face interaction are not very fond of on-line communication and consider it to be rather inhibiting.

One such disadvantage of communication on the internet, as termed by the renowned author and psychologist Daniel Goleman, is cyber-disinhibition. Goleman suggests that the human brain is designed for face-to-face interaction. Face-to-face interactions enable people getting social feedback, mainly in terms of facial expressions and body language, which enhance communication. Empathy, a major factor in appropriate social interaction, becomes a key when it comes to the feedback that an individual gets from the other person’s expressions and body language.

When it comes to on-line interaction, these aspects of social feedback or social cues are missing and according to Goleman it is like operating in the dark. By not getting appropriate social feedback from the other person during a conversation, communication between the two gets inhibited. This inhibition in communication, in on-line interaction, is called cyber-disinhibition.

A very common effect of cyber-disinhibition is known as flaming. Flaming is the tendency to send anger and hate-filled messages on the internet. This is most often found in on-line forums, chatting, e-mails, or commenting on blogs.

During on-line interaction, something or the other might work as a trigger for the individual and may cause him/her to be emotionally hijacked. The person then with a fit of anger types some hateful message and clicks on the 'send' button. As soon as this is done, the person realizes that he/she has made a mistake and immediately starts regretting it.

This flaming gets controlled in face-to-face interaction as the person gets appropriate social feedback from the other person. The social feedback that the person gets in face-to-face interaction makes him/her aware of the whole situation and enables to reframe what he/she was about to say. This helps in preventing flaming, which does not occur in on-line interaction.

Goleman’s view of cyber-disinhibition can be corroborated by Paul Ekman’s theory of facial expressions. Paul Ekman is regarded as one of the most influential psychologists of the twentieth century. Ekman suggests that the micro-facial expressions of people reveal a lot about them and prove to be very useful in communication and having a better emotional life.

Ekman has developed techniques for measuring emotions that are revealed through such micro-facial expressions and found that facial muscular movements that created facial expressions could be reliably identified through empirical research. His theory is extensively used in lie detection and criminal investigation. The popular T. V. series, Lie To Me, is based on Ekman's theory.

Ekman’s theory and its applications show how important facial expressions can prove to be. This strengthens Goleman’s claim of cyber-disinhibition and asserts that face-to-face interaction is more fruitful as far as communication is concerned.

On-line interaction, of course, does not allow a person to read the facial expressions and body language of the other person and thus, does not provide proper social feedback. Since facial expressions, as per Ekman, reveal so much, cyber-disinhibition clearly proves to be a hindrance for appropriate communication.

Despite the negative effects associated with cyber-disinhibition, it may, for many people turn out to be a blessing in disguise. People who are unable to express themselves properly or lack in proper communication skills, especially those who are shy, may not feel very comfortable in face-to-face interactions and tend to avoid such situations. The facial expressions that work as social cues to enhance communication actually cause a hindrance.

Getting a clear, immediate reaction (feedback, social cues) of what has been said creates a sense of discomfort for people who lack in proper communication skills. Their inability to communicate properly tends to make them hesitant due to the social cues that they get in face-to-face interaction. This is one reason why shy people tend to avoid eye contact while conversing.

For such people, being unsure about the kind of reaction they will get makes them feel comfortable. The limited social cues work as an advantage. On-line interaction provides them with a platform that gives them psychological comfort. Communicating on-line usually occurs when being in isolation, which gives a sense of privacy. This further adds to their sense of comfort.

Research suggests that self-disclosure, the revealing of casual, semi-private, and private information about the self, which is a very important factor in communication, is high in people who are shy during on-line interaction as compared to face-to-face interaction. It has been found that while interacting on the internet, such people reveal more private and personal information about themselves; information that may feel hesitant about revealing in face-to-face interactions. They tend to have more intimate interactions on the internet. This helps them to express themselves in a much better way during on-line interaction.

The discomfort that they feel during face-to-face interaction, due to their social difficulties, does not occur while communicating on the internet. The internet, in fact, becomes a platform for such people where they freely express themselves and not feel unwanted. Self-expression is an important factor in developing a positive mental health. It gives them an alternative to fulfill their social needs and provides them with emotional relief. On-line interaction, thus, also, proves to be a factor in enhancing the mental health of people who are unable to express themselves properly.

Irrespective of whether or not a person has the ability of expressing himself/herself, in general, it has been found that on-line interaction, at times, may turn out to be as good as or even better than face-to-face interaction. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) expert Joseph Walther suggests that communication on the internet, believed to be impersonal, can actually be hyper-personal, which means that communication is more or excessively personal and involves higher levels of self-disclosure as compared to face-to-face interaction.

The features of on-line interaction, according to Walther, makes the communication to be hyper-personal. People during on-line communication have more time on their hands. Their responses are well thought out and they have greater control over what they have to say. It also provides greater psychological comfort, as mentioned above, which enables an individual to ease into a conversation. These features of on-line interaction make the communication process to be more personal and more intimate in comparison to face-to-face communication.

Walther further adds that the absence of non-verbal cues in on-line communication may initially become a deterrent, but after a period of time it does not matter very much. Walther suggests that the unavailability of facial expressions, as a form of non-verbal cues, in on-line communication is substituted by other cues such as the style of content and timing of verbal messages, which turn out to be highly beneficial and leads to quick and highly intimate exchange of information. In such a situation it becomes a lot easier to self-disclose in comparison to face-to-face interaction. In this way, it can be said that cyber-disinhibition actually enables the communication to be hyper-personal.

Social feedback, in the form of facial expressions, in face-to-face interaction of course is very helpful in communication. Absence of such cues does create difficulties causing cyber-disinhibition. However, the aspects of on-line communication, at times, prove to be more beneficial and may actually enhance communication rather than inhibit it. Cyber-disinhibition may, therefore, turn out to be an advantage.

Saif Farooqi

A PhD in Psychology (from the University of Delhi). I have been blogging about psychological issues for more than ten years. I am extremely passionate about teaching psychology. I'm a writer, podcaster, and TEDx speaker. I also conduct workshops and awareness programs in schools and colleges. Currently, I'm also working as an Assistant Professor at the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, India


Shalini said...

This is perhaps one of your best articles....

Saif Farooqi said...

Thanks a lot Shalini. It's really good to know that you feel that this is one of my best articles. :)

TF said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
TF said...

Excellent article. It felt as if I was reading something out of a professional magazine, very well written. One thing that instantly came to mind while reading this article was emoticons (smileys). Even though smileys may not be accurate or as expressive, they have evolved in to a useful tool to suggest one's facial expressions while communicating online.

Saif Farooqi said...

@ Tipu bhai
Thanks! Your comments are always very encouraging.
The thing that you said about emoticons is a great point. As you said, it, of course, is not a very accurate representation of facial expressions, but they do provide pretty good feedback in on-line interaction. Depending on the type of emoticon, the sense of a sentence may change. Through these emoticons, the receiver on the other side gets a pretty good idea of what the messenger is trying to portray.

Helena Fortissima said...

Thanks for a very well-written, informative, and comprehensive piece. This would be of interest to anyone who's ever communicated on-line.

Saif Farooqi said...

@ Helena
Thanks a lot for the appreciation.