Text messaging, instant messaging, and posts to social media sites – these are now common forms of quick, easy communication. But as it turns out, these simple forms of communication also cause a great deal of controversy because, by their very design – easy, fast, simply stated, they are often not well considered by the author before hitting the ‘send’ button. Think about it, how likely is it that I am going to get a full message across to someone in just a few abbreviated words followed by an emoji?  

Here’s an example, have you ever sent a text message to someone and received a response that indicated they had a completely different understanding than what your intention was? Perhaps they responded as if they had been attacked.  Or how about the confusion you’re left with when someone publicly posts a statement you think is critical of you or a put down but then follows the statement with ‘lol’ or a smiley emoji. Experience shows that such responses are common when it comes to these technologically advanced (?) forms of written communication.

Online disinhibition effect is a term that applies to how people behave while communicating via these methods of written communication, as opposed to face-to-face conversation. Online disinhibition is comprised of empathy deficit, anonymity, and asynchronous communication.

Empathy deficit refers to a reduction in the ability to identify with the other person’s emotions due to the lack of non-verbal feedback, such as eye contact, shoulder shrugging, frowning or head nodding when they receive a written message. In other words, since we can’t see the way what we say makes the other person feel, we may tend to be less concerned with how what we say makes someone else feel.

Anonymity makes people feel safer to do and say what they want when they communicate through social media platforms. If someone cannot be identified, they cannot be held accountable. Lack of accountability can lead some people to say or do things they typically wouldn’t if they could be identified by others.

Asynchronous communication, or communication which is not live provides people with an opportunity to take time to consider their response. They may provide a more heartfelt message because there is not a time constraint, but they may also forget to respond altogether. This could send an entirely different message to the initiating party depending on a variety of factors.  It can also be true that someone may not read the written communication immediately (or at all) leading to confusion in later communication due to the ‘missing piece’.

It’s also important to note that these forms of communication keep a record of an interaction. A text message can offer someone the proof they need in order to explain a situation or agreement which was made.  But on the other hand, reposts or responses to social media posts can reignite tension between people who had forgotten an incident that may have occurred weeks, months, or even years ago.

Many articles and books have now been written about some unanticipated outcomes of this form of communication, such as the lack of development and occurrence of real-time, in-person communication and weakened face-to-face communication skills, which can adversely affect one’s ability to succeed in school or secure employment.  Today’s employers are vocalizing these very concerns regarding millennials, a problem they believe is due, at least in part, to their lifelong exposure to and dependency upon these now common forms of communication.

There are situations in which shortened, abbreviated communication is helpful, efficient and acceptable, such as confirming an appointment, sending a greeting, passing along a reminder or a list for the grocery store. And there are many others in which people are better off using the old-fashioned form of face-to-face dialogue where each person can see (non-verbal) and hear (verbal) the conversation, and is better informed about the intent and receipt of the message being relayed.