Is there a psychological reason for people being mean on the Internet?

What To Do If You're a Target

Many online publications have begun requiring commenters to register and provide a valid e-mail address to put the brakes on trolls -- posters who intentionally comment using provocative or profanity-laced language to get a rise out of others. Whether it actually makes a difference is debatable [source: Ferenstein].

On a more personal level, what can you do to diffuse the online wars? One of the most effective strategies is to give yourself a time-out. Take a few minutes (or hours) to cool off before you reply. And when you do, remain objective. If it's on your personal blog or social media account, ask the person to stop. If that doesn't occur, then block the person from the service you are using and/or report them to the administrator of the message board or chat room, or even your Internet provider [source: Gardner].

If the threats seem likely to escalate and spill over into real life, make a police report. With the exception of Montana, in 2012 every state in the U.S. had a law against bullying behavior. However, only 16 of those states included an anti-cyberbullying provision. An additional five states were in the process of proposing laws against cyberbully behavior [source: Hinduja].

Of course, pursuing legal action is most effective if you haven't thrown any gasoline on the fire. Don't respond to negative comments with negativity of your own. It's important to preserve your online image, so don't stoop to the same level and fire back with a zinger. If you find it difficult to resist a retort, you always have the option of disabling comments or enabling a comment-approval feature [source: Robertson].

Of course, if someone is just responding rudely to a comment of yours on some random Web site, you always have the option to leave it alone. Is it worth the mental energy to even dignify it with a response? As with all interactions with difficult people, it helps to remember the source. People who are lashing out usually have troubles of their own and are simply looking to exert control or discomfort -- all in an effort to personally feel better.

Author's Note: Is there a psychological reason for people being mean on the Internet?

Not that I want to tempt fate, but I've witnessed only a few Internet flame-ups -- and they've all been from a comfortable distance. Well, comfortable may be an overstatement, since I tend to back away from discord among friends and colleagues rather than jump into the fray. Still, I doubt whether the assertions we make online would be as vehement if we were discussing the matter face-to-face at a cocktail party or post-meeting mingle. I love the convenience and speed of online communication, but there's something to be said for remembering manners, even when the topic is a difficult one.

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  • Chopra, Mallika. "Does Being Happy Make You Healthy?" Feb. 2, 2010. (Jan. 13, 2013) Good.
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