The Psychology of online interactions

Published: Mar. 22, 2018 at 6:40 PM CDT
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“Research has linked cyber bullying with being lower in empathy,” Psychologist Anne Zell said.

It has been a week of cyber assaults, this time, it's not teens, but adults on the attack on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter.

Earlier this week, the mother of a five-year-old girl who drowned at Falls Park was heavily criticized by people who felt she didn't do enough to save her daughter. Then Thursday, two candidates running for Sioux Falls mayor exchanged tweets after a report questioned one's involvement in the search for an internet troll during Senator Mike Rounds’ 2014 election campaign

All of this while national politicians deal with a barrage of anonymous, insulting and manipulative comments online, even sparking a Facebook investigation.

All examples that prompted a closer look at the psychology behind such online interactions.

Over the past decade of evolving social media use, psychologists say it’s become very clear that people will say things online they would never say to someone in person.

“Face to face, people are going to be focusing on the emotional response of the person they're talking to, so they're going to be connecting to that person emotionally and empathizing with them,” Augustan Professor of Social Psychology Dr. Anne Zell said. “But online, I’m not seeing that person's face and I’m not seeing how my words affect them.”

It’s a concept demonstrated by comments directed to the mother of the Falls Park victim, specifically blaming her for her daughter's death.

“Individuals who are responding in that way are clearly people who are finding it impossible to empathize with that mother, when that is indeed exactly what they should be doing,” Augustana Professor Janet Blank-Libra said.

Blank-Libra wrote a book on pursuing empathy in journalism, discussing how media coverage of tragedies can help invoke empathy in others.

“There are studies that show that people are becoming less empathetic today than they were 20, 30 40, 50 years ago, so why is that happening?” Blank-Libra said.

Psychologists suggest one answer may be the way people communicate through technology.

“The feeling of anonymity that people have online…when they feel anonymous, they feel disinhibited, they behave in ways that are inconsiderate, uncivil, even really hurtful, because they don't feel like they're going to be held accountable for that,” Dr. Zell said.

That has certainly been the case with the Rounds campaign of 2014. The Argus Leader reported Thursday that staffers worked to find who was responsible for an anonymous Twitter account specifically designed to attack or troll Senator Rounds.

“Things said on the internet can be very hurtful, because you have a record of it, there it is in black and white…and it’s in public...all of these other people can read that,” Dr. Zell said.

While those anonymous comments may be made without thought to the other person's feelings or emotions, Dr. Zell says the comments are certain to have a profound impact on the person they're directed at, no matter their age.

Processionals in the field of Psychology say the full psychological implications of human interactions online are still being studied as social media and the internet are a relatively new concept.

But on the bright side of online interactions, social psychologists say there are some circumstances where the anonymous setting allows people to open up and support one another more than they might in person.