• Wed, Feb 22 2012

Why So Many People Are Angry On The Internet (And How It Hurts Your Mental Health)

Millions of people log on to the internet every day, and man oh man, some of them are really pissed off. Although the majority of people try to keep their comments on blogs, websites and forums civil, there seems to be a growing number of people who just let their anger fly. We’ve seen it ourselves here at Blisstree, and just about every site that dares to opine is filled with angry commenters, too. Debates and differing viewpoints are what most of us hope for, but when that crosses the line into personal attacks, insults and name-calling, it creates a toxic environment on any site.

To find out just why there are so many pissed off people in cyberland, we consulted with Dr. Azadeh Aalai, a professor of psychology at Montgomery College who specializes in anger management and is a frequent contributer to Psychology Today‘s First Impression blog.

It seems like angry comments and rude or hateful discussions are becoming more common. Why do you think people are so angry over the Internet?

This could be selective–perhaps more individuals who are drawn to communicate over the Internet are more predisposed towards anger. I think the more likely case, though, from a psychological perspective is the anonymity afforded via online communication lowers users’ inhibitions and makes them more willing to promote aggressive and/or antisocial behaviors. We refer to this process as deindividuation–when the social role (e.g. anonymity afforded online) strips the person of their sense of self-awareness and makes a person less inhibited and prone to destructive behavior.

Is this a growing trend to leave hateful or personal attacks as comments?

Certainly it appears we see more vitriol online than we do in face to face interactions. Again, the anonymity afforded to us online may enable us to engage in more hateful speech that we would be less inclined to openly express in face to face interactions. Or, it could be that those prone to comment and/or communicate online are more prone to venting hostility.

Is this a sign that more people are angry today? Or is it just more visible on the internet?

Both are plausible explanations. Certainly as a culture we may be more stressed, sleep-deprived, busy, etc., which may make us have shorter fuses and more likely to resort to anger and/or hostile encounters. Our media in particular oftentimes is quick to expose us to aggression and violence and also those public figures with more polarizing rhetoric oftentimes receive more coverage and attention. So hostility and anger drives ratings more than diplomacy and peace.

Do certain topics or sites trigger angry comments more so than others?

I believe that blogs in particular incite angry comments because they can be produced by virtually anyone who has access to a computer, are not regulated in any way, and do not reflect any specific level of journalistic expertise or integrity. Individuals can generally leave comments on blogs without identifying themselves also, raising the level of anonymity and thus disinhibiting the user. On the other hand, although social networking sites (like Facebook) can certainly trigger angry remarks, generally users will be more censored if they are representing themselves since they do not have the cloak of anonymity to hide behind.

Are angry commenters just hiding behind the Internet, saying things they would never say to someone in person?

Probably. Again, the anonymity factor is a big influence here. But it is also difficult to draw the line between seemingly “innocent” ranting and potential threats to other users.

What are the health repercussions for people’s emotional health?

It varies from user to user. For individuals whose sense of self is strongly identified with their online persona, then potential “venting” directed their way can be very psychologically damaging. Generally, younger individuals are more susceptible to internalizing negative remarks so they maybe most at high risk for a strong blow to their emotional health. This is particularly striking given that young people today are spending more and more time online–for instance, some research suggests that young people are exposed to about 50 hours of digital media per week, which is the equivalent to a full time job. These individuals in particular will be susceptible to negative effects of hostile exchanges occurring online, given how much of their lives may take a digital form.

Isn’t this really considered bullying?

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  • Lindsay Cross

    As a blogger, I’ve obviously been on the receiving end of some pretty cruel comments. Sometimes, I think you can tell that a person is just frustrated about the topic and venting some anger. Others, it definitely feels like they’re being as mean as possible without adding to the conversation.

    I have to admit, the idea that people who are already prone to anger and hostility are simply more likely to comment makes sense. I guess if you’re looking for a fight at 1am, the internet is the easiest place to go.

  • Deborah Dunham

    Yes, you are right, Lindsay. We have to assume that someone with hateful or angry comments is just having a bad day. We don’t take their responses personally because, honestly, it says more about them and who they really are than it does about us. Keep blogging!

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  • Sheevaun

    Given that anger outwardly directed is mainly because the person directing it seems to believe that it will create change in another. Anger is one of those emotions that we’ve been told not to have or express and so it bottles us. I wrote about the energy of anger and what it looks like. If we were to see it with our eyes we would certainly be much more inclined to learn how use the anger for good rather than harm.

    http://sheevaunmoran.com/blog/