Shedding Our Disinhibitions (Part 2 Of 2)

The Online Disinhibition Effect (Part 2 of 2)
Summary: Continuing from our discussion in part 1 on the online disinhibition effect, this post offers 14 strategies to mitigate negative online behavior and promote positive online communication.

14 Strategies To Stop Negative Behavior Online

In the first part of this two-part article, we discussed the online disinhibition effect: what it is, its positive and negative aspects (though there's some of the former, there is often more of the latter), why we act more boorishly online than we would in a face-to-face setting, and how the online disinhibition effect influences the quality of the eLearning experience.

In the second part of this two-part post, we discuss ways to reduce the negative and toxic aspects of the online negative “disinhibition effect” (rudeness and bullying) while embracing its positive elements (reflection and self-disclosure). Here, I share strategies that can help to inhibit and mute negative online communication.

1. Provide Opportunities For Online Learners To Meet Each Other

We are less likely to flame someone we know and with whom we come in contact. Therefore, making sure our learners know each other or have a chance to meet can mitigate against the online disinhibition effect. For some readers who teach face-to-face classes where the online component is reserved for discussions, this may be easy to do. For others, where our learners are more dispersed, we might want to organize meet-ups where learners who live relatively close can meet each other or we can build in activities that are collaborative and offline so that learners must physically meet and interact.
Mary Burns Image 1

(Okay, you are definitely "meeting" each other, but this is not what we had in mind!)

2. Create Time to talk

In addition to anonymity and invisibility, asynchronicity often contributes to anti-social online communications. If our online learners cannot meet face-to-face, we can facilitate their meeting online via “face-time” communication tools like Skype or FaceTime. Using technology to make communication synchronous, and therefore more visible and less anonymous, should help lessen unpleasant or unkind communications.

3. Educate Instructors And Learners About Online Behavior

The fact is that we can expect more, not less, of the online disinhibition effect, especially on social media. Sherry Turkle’s work on online communication [3] shows that over time as we increasingly communicate via technology and less via face-to-face interactions, we demonstrate less empathy because we do not see the distress that our technology-mediated words can cause. We have to educate online instructors and learners about the online disinhibition effect, its positive and negative effects, and the importance of approaching online learning with a sense of openness to new ideas. As part of this, we must impress upon learners that anything they write online will most likely remain well past the timeline of the course and be disseminated well beyond the walled garden of that particular Learning Management System.

(I'm typing with my paws, I'd say that's "friction" enough!)

4. Introduce “Friction” Into The Online Course

The negative aspects of the online disinhibition effect are greased by the frictionless nature of many of the platforms which instantaneously make public our ideas or viewpoints. Rauch [1] suggests introducing “friction” into online platforms—particularly social media. For instance, after posting an idea, a user could receive a message asking, “Are you 100% certain you want to post this? It will be online forever.” This “strategically introduced conflict” (p. 19) gives the user time to reflect, consider and reconsider what he/she has written.

5. Focus On Writing

When we talk about online “behavior,” we are primarily talking about online “communication.” And when we are talking about online communication we are really talking about "writing." Yet, despite the fact that online learning is still largely a written medium, few online programs or courses attempt to help online learners improve their written communication. We need to help online learners, especially novices, understand writing conventions, and important skills such as modulating one's tone (through careful word choice, pausing and reflecting on one’s writing) and voice (our personality and how it comes through in our writing). Other techniques, like using tentative language (“might,” “could”) versus categorical language (“is”), questioning and wondering (“I’m wondering if…?”), and warm and cool feedback (“I think you really captured X but in terms of Y, I’m wondering if you might consider…”) can help smooth some of the rough contours of online communication.

6. Build The Empathy Of Online Learners

Empathy (versus sympathy) is the ability to understand the perspectives, ideas, and experiences of others. It is tough to do and it is tougher to teach because we have to essentially “walk a mile in another’s shoes” and we often have not lived the experiences of others. However, focusing on building empathy is critical and can start with the most basic thought experiment: How would I feel if someone wrote this to me?

7. Use Protocols

I recently taught a multi-national online course comprised of people from different countries with complicated historical relationships and with different communication styles, some of which were very direct and, thus, potentially hurtful in an online environment. To preclude any overly direct communication that might be interpreted as rude, I developed protocols for discussions and feedback. Protocols constrain online learners from the ignorance or indifference that often lead to the negative behaviors of the disinhibition effect and they provide guides and scaffolds for how we should communicate online. If the protocols are well developed and online learners adhere to them, their use can make the online class a safe space for sharing, discussing and communicating.

8. Require That Online Learners Use Photos Of Themselves As Well As Their Real Names

An online bully is a coward, who often dares not, literally, reveal his/her name or face. It is important that in online courses, our learners post photos of themselves and share their real names. I have absolutely no data to prove this, but I believe people are less inclined to be rude or inappropriate online when we “see” their face and know their name.

9. Teach Netiquette And Digital Citizenship

Decades into the Digital Age, we seem to have all but forgotten the need for netiquette. The openness (indeed, anarchy), invisibility and dissociative nature of online communication mean that we have to help online learners embrace or revisit the techniques and norms of positive online behaviors, develop internal controls and self-monitoring techniques for proper online communication, and learn how to be positive members of an online group or community.

Mary Burns Image 2

(No! We said, "Be inhibited, not disinhibited!"... And is that catnip?)

10. Diversify Online Communication

We would do well to keep in mind the metaphor of three chairs—"one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society"—as we design online courses. This metaphor [2] illustrates the diverse types of communication we can promote online—solitary/self-reflection, one-to-one communication, small-group and large-group communication. Broadening this metaphor, we can also diversify the focus of communications—a reflection, an example, an assertion, an opinion, a wondering, a question. Establishing the purpose of and the participants in online communication can serve to regulate how learners respond within those boundaries. Again, as instructors, we must help our learners understand the tone, voice and language of such varied communications.

11. Develop Anchors For Positive Communication

I am a big fan of anchors or exemplars which provide online learners with models of appropriate—and inappropriate—online communication. Anchors are particularly helpful references and guides for tricky and hard conversations, for “hot topics” and a good way to help learners agreeably disagree.

12. Create And Enforce Policies Around Online Behavior

Every online course should have a code of conduct which includes the prohibition of racist, sexist, homophobic, sectarian language, profanity, and harassment in all its forms. Bad behavior needs to be called out by the online instructor. However, the policy itself around abusive communications needs to be enforced by someone other than the online instructor—that is, the institution that is sponsoring the online course.

13. Develop Procedures For Dealing With Negative Online Behaviors

The institution or organization hosting the online course needs to have procedures in place to deal with the antisocial communication and behaviors—rudeness, bullying, trolling—of the disinhibition effect. How is this different from what I wrote in the previous paragraph? An institution can have a policy (“No racist language”). However, procedures are the exact steps that are taken when a violation of the policy occurs. For example, the online instructor forwards to a dean/a supervisor/the head of online learning who then initiates a series of actions that have been established to deal with this kind of antisocial behavior.

14. Channel The Tinman, The Scarecrow And The Lion From The Wizard Of Oz

If online flaming, abuse or trolling occurs in an online course (say, from the Wicked Witch of the West to Toto, for example), the online instructor needs to empathize with the recipient of the message, think clearly about how to address the abuse, and have the courage to do so. One method of dealing with this, if possible, is contacting the “offender” directly, by phone (or face-to-face, as in a campus blended course) and calmly framing the outreach as a concern, naïve inquiry or wanting to help and talking through the issue. This can be an opportunity for the “offender” to walk back his/her statements or realize that he/she should have expressed ideas in a different way.

The Need For Self-Awareness And Self-Monitoring

The English actor, Oliver Reed, who indulged his own disinhibitions, once joked that he liked to give his inhibitions “a bath now and then.” Inverting this sentiment, we are all capable of engaging in, and have at one point or another succumbed to the more negative behaviors of online disinhibition effect. The frictionless, instantaneous nature of online communication makes it too easy to succumb to our worst impulses and behaviors. Therefore, it’s important that we acknowledge our own triggers, our own biases, and take inventory of our own communication styles—and reflect on, modulate, and yes, even inhibit them—before we press Send.


[1] Rauch, J. (2019, August). Wait a minute. The Atlantic, 324 (2), pp. 18-19. Washington DC: The Atlantic

[2] Thoreau, H.D. (1854). Walden. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

[3] Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York, NY: Penguin Books.