Do we each harbor a dark passenger? A malevolent psychopath? A fragile narcissist? Contrary to popular belief, decades of psychological research shows that anyone is capable of aggression, cruelty and violence. The “self” is a murky mixture of light and shade.
Lately the dark side seems to be winning. On Thursday, Downing Street called for a boycott on the website ask.fm following the tragic death of Hannah Smith. Meanwhile, the barrage of threats directed at Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy has led to several arrests and forced Twitter to work on better ways of handling abuse. Beyond triggering action and debate, these cases have fuelled the growing realization that online abuse is disturbingly common, especially for young girls and women with public profiles.
While most of us agree there is a problem, much less has been said about possible solutions. Are our only options punitive or regulatory? As law blogger David Allen Green explains, simply banning or criminalizing a behavior doesn’t make it magically disappear. Could there be more effective ways to quell online abuse without stifling freedom of speech or censoring society’s most vulnerable?
Psychology may hold a big piece of the puzzle. Nearly 10 years ago, the American psychologist John Suler argued that online environments unleash aspects of our personality that we normally keep under guard – a phenomenon he referred to as the online disinhibition effect.
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