berrin-beasley-headshotI downloadYour Post: Ethical Challenges Associated with Online and Social Media Communication

Dr. Berrin A. Beasley
Associate Professor of Multimedia Journalism
Department of Communication
University of North Florida

The online world is a special place. It allows us to be more than we are, providing infinite possibilities for self-presentation. We can say and do things we normally wouldn’t. We can be male or female or some other interpretation of self. We can be knights, soldiers, explorers, time-travelers, even criminals, and we can do it all free from most of the societal norms that guide our otherwise real-world existence.

For many, this online world becomes a place where they feel unrestricted. It becomes about more than just the type of self presented; the expression of self changes as well. Some people are able to open-up to others about their feelings, their struggles, their habits and desires, and for many this is a healthy outlet for healthy behavior.

For others, the online environment offers the opportunity to flout convention. People can engage in behaviors that endanger themselves and others, with little consequence and little incentive to stop.

The Real Me? Online Disinhibition Theory

Researchers have labeled this feeling of freedom the “online disinhibition effect.” Clinical psychologist John Suler1 notes that disinhibition comes in two forms. The first, benign, represents behaviors that reflect positive attributes, such as the opening up of one’s self to others and the lending of support and kindness to others. The second form is toxic disinhibition, which is exemplified by behaviors that are dangerous to one’s self and to others, such as language intentionally used to inflict emotional harm on others, the posting of inflammatory comments, the sharing of highly private information about another without permission, or encouraging others to physically harm themselves.

It’s easy to understand how the feeling of freedom to express one’s self in a positive way is a healthy form of disinhibition. The ability to discover and develop new healthy facets of one’s personality, a kind of self-actualization, is appealing. Of much more concern is toxic disinhibition.

Suler noted six factors involved in the production of disinhibition, and although these factors may work independently to explain benign and toxic behaviors, they can also work together to generate more complex reasons for the loss of inhibitions.

One of these factors is the asynchronous nature of communication associated with a multitude of online and social media platforms. Minutes, hours, days, even weeks can go by before a reply is made to a message board post, a tweet, a status update, etc. This distance in communication can reduce, even eliminate, the norms assigned to face-to-face communication. Coupled with another of Suler’s factors, anonymity, individuals may feel even freer to engage in morally and ethically inappropriate behavior. Online, with one’s true identity disguised, those who wouldn’t normally make rude comments to people in person find themselves at home in the comments sections and on discussion boards saying outrageous, hurtful things.

Short Isn’t Always Sweet: The Communication Format Can Lead to Ethical Challenges

The actual structure of chatrooms, message boards, and social media platforms such as Facebook and Snapchat reduce communication to a few sentences, a few words, pictures, or even simple icons. One of the most popular apps currently in use is Instagram, an app whose very name embodies the ethical challenges associated with brief, instantaneous communication. Samuel Morse demonstrated his telegraph machine before Congress in 1844 by transmitting a four-word telegram. The simply-worded transmission was considered nearly instantaneous communication when compared to the speed of a horse or train, the primary modes of communication at the time. Instagram can be viewed as a modern interpretation of the telegram, with one important difference. The composing and sending of a telegram took time and money, giving the sender time to reflect on what he or she really wanted to communicate. These days, there’s no cost associated with Instagram and other photo-sharing apps, which makes them a very appealing form of communication. When a picture and a caption say it all, we need only reply with an icon.

The old adage, “a picture is worth a 1,000 words,” was clearly prescient. But is one image still worth a 1,000 words, or have our instant “images” become meaningless beyond the moment of being shared? The answer is yes, and no. Yes, the photo can become obsolete the moment it’s viewed, as exemplified by Snapchat, but it lasts forever in the vast archive of the internet, waiting to be retrieved by anyone with an interest in you, such as a potential employer, who may use it to draw unwanted conclusions about you.

Choose Your Emoji Carefully: Careless Communication and Its Effects

Reducing our mediated communication to simple icons affects the pace of communication, and because icons replace words, there’s very little effort needed to express thoughts or feelings, which can lead to careless communication. The pace of interactivity may reduce the time needed to apply moral and ethical reasoning before hitting the “like” or “send” button. This relegates the use of icons intended to represent genuine feelings to that of impersonal communication. Although we have several icons available to us across platforms, like a thumbs-up, a smiley face, a heart, a crying face, and an angry face, how genuine is the meaning attached to an icon when you use it numerous times during one visit to Facebook? At some point in your social media use you’ve probably used the “like” icon to simply indicate to your friend that you read her post, whether or not you really liked what she posted. Using icons to maintain a relationship is problematic in its own right because unless you “like” every post a friend makes, he or she may feel injured when you fail to “like” one post, even if it’s because you didn’t get a chance to check all your friend’s posts that day.

Also important to remember is that icons can’t represent emotional depth. They can’t reflect the varying levels of connection a user has with his or her social media friends. For example, a “like” for a family member’s promotion may carry more meaning than a “like” for an acquaintance’s picture of her dinner, but both receive the same icon reply. This indiscreet use of icons for communication is fraught with ethical issues. Combining speed of communication with lack of discretion in the use of icons and their limited meanings can result in a carelessness that may unintentionally injure someone’s feelings. An example of the ethical dangers of speedy and impersonal communication can be found in the case of the multi-meaning status update. To use Facebook as an example, a dear friend may post that her daughter received all A’s on her report card, as did her son, except for the F he earned by failing algebra. Without careful consideration of the post, an immediate response to the good news resulted in a “thumbs-up” from you. You’re happy her daughter received all A’s and that her son also did well on his report card, so you hit the “thumbs-up” icon, and move on. After all, you have 250 friends and all their posts from the past 24 hours to get through.

However, your intentionally supportive post may be interpreted as a “like” of the fact that her son’s failing a class because that was the last piece of information included in the status update. By rushing through her post to get to the next one you didn’t realize that your reply might be associated with the negative statement rather than the positive one.

The behavior of hurrying though the many Facebook posts, and Snapchat and Instagram photos, in addition to any other social media and online platforms being used, cultivates a kind of carelessness that may distance one from the depth of meaning originally intended for the icons. The pace of interactivity imposed by the communication format itself may reduce the time needed to apply moral and ethical reasoning. Add speed and distance to Suler’s disinhibition effects factors of anonymity and invisibility, and our communication can become even more potentially harmful.

Who Am I and Who Are You? Anonymity and Invisibility Factors

The most commonly used social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, can require us to accept friendship requests so that our communication is limited to the people of our choosing, although there is always the public option, which allows whatever you post to be seen by anyone. Only allowing the people you know into your circle of friends should eliminate the anonymity and invisibility factors, but if your account is open to the public, anyone can comment on your posts. This enables the disinhibition effects factors of invisibility and anonymity to thrive. Facebook accounts can be created using false information and the information available to the general public can be limited to an image and a name, both of which can be false identifiers. Now these users can engage with you without fear of reprisal. After all, if reported to the site administrator who ultimately blocks the account, the user can simply create another fake account.

In some instances, like chatrooms, no one may even know you’re there, taking the concept of Suler’s invisibility factor to the extreme. Of course, there are webmasters and technology-savvy individuals who can monitor site traffic, but the average user won’t have the skills necessary to identify a user’s IP address. This invisibility gives users the freedom to communicate in ways they wouldn’t normally when interacting with someone face-to-face. The person who chooses to be invisible doesn’t have to consider how he or she looks when gaming or chatting online. Conversely, the user wouldn’t be able see whether an “invisible” person or people in the conversation look bored, are rolling their eyes at what’s being shared, or are giving other visual cues that reflect negatively on the user or the user’s words. This can lead to oversharing, or the sharing of information that might not be exchanged in an in-person conversation, which can in turn lead to information used unethically to insult, embarrass, or discredit someone.

You’re Not Real to Me: The Abstract Person

In addition to Suler’s factors I like to introduce the factor of abstraction. The ethical challenges associated with quick, distanced, anonymous communication may be exacerbated when the concept of abstraction is included. The influence of abstraction on disinhibition may increase in text-driven communication such as chat rooms and message boards. It can be difficult to imagine the person on the other end of the conversation as an actual person when there’s no picture of the person attached and you’ve never met before. The person becomes more of an abstract version of a real person with whom there’s no personal connection. A message board post by a disembodied writer reduces the writer to his or her words, stripping away the real person. A potential result is the reduction in need to monitor one’s responses to the abstract writer. If you can’t envision a real person on the other end of your posts, it can be difficult to apply the same considerations to that person as we would to someone we meet face-to-face.

Take Your Time: Awareness and Patience

The ethical challenges associated with online behavior and social media use can be reduced or even eliminated with two tools: awareness and patience. Being aware means monitoring yourself while using social media or participating in online communication. Reduce the speed with which you interact. Allow yourself time to apply moral and ethical reasoning to the information presented before responding. Be aware by reflecting on the other person’s words or pictures before you take action. Doing so will allow you to identify the depth of response you want to communicate. Then you can more clearly decide whether a thumbs-up, heart, smiley face, crying face, angry face, comment or some combination thereof would be most appropriate. Be aware of your thoughts and feelings when in anonymous mode. Take time to consider what you post. A hurried response could fail to accurately reflect your thoughts or feelings and unintentionally injure someone. If your intent is to insult or embarrass someone, pause before posting to examine why you feel that way. The easiest way to mitigate the disinhibition effect is to be aware of it. Participating in the unique opportunities afforded us via online and social media interaction can be exciting and rewarding, but it also comes with the responsibility of engaging in ethical behavior, even if no one knows it’s us unless we tell them.


Suler, J.R. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 7, 321-326.