3.1 The online disinhibition effect

When you use the internet, you might have notice that online communication can differ from face-to-face conversation: people will do or say things online they would rather not in person. Online, they seem to feel less restricted and more willing to express themselves openly.

This phenomenon has been described as online disinhibition effect (Suler, 2004). It can be:

  • benign, such as sharing personal feelings and supporting strangers online
  • toxic, such as cyberbullying, social loafing, harsh criticisms, anger, hatred or threats in online forums.

The effect can broadly be explained by the greater anonymity online, as well as the lack of visual, auditory and contextual cues such as information about social status or ethnic background. This seems to make people feel both less vulnerable (for example, to external judgment of their self) and less responsible for their actions.

Activity 9: The online disinhibition effect in therapeutic context

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

How could the online disinhibition effect influence working with clients online or on the phone?

a. 

A client discloses intimate information more quickly than they would in a face-to-face session.


b. 

Both clients and counsellors are more open or willing to talk about difficult or stigmatised topics.


c. 

The quality of the therapeutic relationship will be negatively impacted.


d. 

A client brings up issues that they have never talked about before in a face-to-face session.


e. 

A client is more prepared to openly disagree with the counsellor.


f. 

A client is likelier to miss a session or forget to pay for it.


g. 

A client is less concerned about how they are perceived by the counsellor.


The correct answers are a, b, d, e and g.

Discussion

Research shows that clients in online counselling tend to disclose issues that they may not so readily bring to face-to-face counselling, and that they can be more direct and divulge problems very quickly in this medium (Fletcher-Tomenius and Vossler, 2009). There is also evidence that they become less concerned about how they are perceived by the counsellor (Gibson and Cartwright, 2014). We have no evidence that the online disinhibition effect has a negative impact on the therapeutic relationship or on client motivation.

The consequences of the online disinhibition effect are especially relevant in text-based online counselling and (to a lesser degree) in phone/videoconferencing counselling. In the following section you will learn more about the specifics of developing and maintaining an effective therapeutic relationship online.

3 General considerations for online counselling

3.2 The online counselling relationship