But anyway, I wasn't going to bother reading about cyber-disinhibition but decided I would after all because, well, I remember the days pre-www when newsgroups were filled with the most remarkable flame wars over the most insignificant of things and I've always found this a mildly curious phenomenon.
The techie explanation for what I imagine we all more or less guess, is:
Communication via the Internet can mislead the brain's social systems. The key mechanisms are in the prefrontal cortex; these circuits instantaneously monitor ourselves and the other person during a live interaction, and automatically guide our responses so they are appropriate and smooth. A key mechanism for this involves circuits that ordinarily inhibit impulses for actions that would be rude or simply inappropriate — or outright dangerous.
In order for this regulatory mechanism to operate well, we depend on real-time, ongoing feedback from the other person. The Internet has no means to allow such realtime feedback (other than rarely used two-way audio/video streams). That puts our inhibitory circuitry at a loss — there is no signal to monitor from the other person. This results in disinhibition: impulse unleashed.
What seems obvious but hadn't occured to me (I don't even have a good grasp of the obvious!) is:
Such disinhibition seems state-specific, and typically occurs rarely while people are in positive or neutral emotional states. That's why the Internet works admirably for the vast majority of communication. Rather, this disinhibition becomes far more likely when people feel strong, negative emotions. What fails to be inhibited are the impulses those emotions generate.
That failure to grasp the obvious wasn't nearly as disappointing to me as learning that it hasn't been my long hard attention to self-control that has led to my paltry level of success at not allowing myself to cyber-disinhibit. All I did was get freakin' older:
The greatest danger from cyber-disinhibition may be to young people. The prefrontal inhibitory circuitry is among the last part of the brain to become fully mature, doing so sometime in the twenties. During adolescence there is a developmental lag, with teenagers having fragile inhibitory capacities, but fully ripe emotional impulsivity.
Oh well, as the saying goes getting older is preferrable to the alternative.
Oddly enough there is even a connection to a part of what was discussed in What Am I Missing? below. I won't quote that here 'cause we more or less beat it to death there, but I found it interesting (and a potential legal defense!).
The bottom line, as Goleman points out, is
As with any new technology, the Internet is an experiment in progress. It's time we considered what other such downsides of cyber-disinhibition may be emerging — and looked for a technological fix, if possible. The dangerous thought: the Internet may harbor social perils our inhibitory circuitry was not designed to handle in evolution.
When it comes to communications humans are downright masters of adaptation. I suspect we'll manage to muddle through this. Except, of course, for the youngsters who always have communications issues anyway. The only real problem comes from those who insist this.