Why are people so mean on the Internet?

by Jennifer Sierra

Screen Shot 2015-04-20 at 10.15.06 PMOne reason for this bad behavior is the ability to express yourself without fear of consequences. Distance creates a barrier that  makes people braver than they are normally. Studies have found that people are more likely to talk negatively of someone that isn’t in the same room with them than someone that is.

Internet communications also lack a major thing that we all use when communicating in person…social queues. When reading text someone has typed, it is hard to determine sarcasm, for instance, because one cannot see the other person’s face to see eye-rolling or a smirk that would otherwise let the listener know the statement is being said sarcastically. Tone, pitch and pacing of someone’s words are also lost in typed mediums. It becomes ambiguous and it causes the reader to, often incorrectly, perceive the message as threatening which then causes the person to react accordingly.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein in an article she wrote for the Wall Street Journal, “Most of us present an enhanced image of ourselves on Facebook. This positive image—and the encouragement we get, in the form of “likes”—boosts our self-esteem. And when we have an inflated sense of self, we tend to exhibit poor self-control.”

Bernstein also notes that researchers from Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh who studied this phenomena found that, “People who spent more time online and who had a high percentage of close ties in their network were more likely to engage in binge eating and to have a greater body mass index, as well as to have more credit-card debt and a lower credit score, the research found. Another study found that people who browsed Facebook for five minutes and had strong network ties were more likely to choose a chocolate-chip cookie than a granola bar as a snack.”
“Think of it as a licensing effect: You feel good about yourself so you feel a sense of entitlement,” says Keith Wilcox, assistant professor of marketing at Columbia Business School and co-author of the study. “And you want to protect that enhanced view, which might be why people are lashing out so strongly at others who don’t share their opinions.” These types of behavior—poor self control, inflated sense of self—”are often displayed by people impaired by alcohol,” he adds. Turns out, being mean on the Internet can give you bad health and often results in being aggressive to others in your personal life. Being negative and mean-spirited can also decrease your lifespan.

If you can’t see the person’s reaction to what you are saying about them, you tend to not see them as a fellow human being with feelings. The victim is often doubly hurt because they are used to going to places like Facebook to see and hear from their friends, not be attacked. All of this is rooted in our psyche though. We are trained to be this way. Studies have shown that our minds retain negative events much longer and more clearly than positive events. Remembering negative traumatic events kept us alive as a species. The Neanderthal won’t go near a snake or a bear unprepared because he remembered what happened to his fellow hunters the last time they encountered those situations.  Our brains hold onto negative scenarios in order to remain safe in this world.
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Here are some tips to stop the word wars:

1)   Take your time. Don’t respond to negative comments right away. Take a few hours or even a day before you respond. Once you have time to reflect, you may see that there isn’t anything negative in the message at all or you may decide that the message is hostile in which case there is no reason to respond. You can’t reason with angry people.
2)   Have someone else read the message before you respond. Sometimes another set of eyes is all it takes to make you see that the message you are reading is not offensive at all.
3)   Tell someone about the attacks. Let the blog, or Facebook administrator know what is happening. Tell the police if you feel threatened.
4)   Block the attackers from your page. You don’t need “friends” like that anyway.
5)   Take screen captures immediately. Keep records of the hurtful messages and take screen captures or photographs of the messages. It always helps to have proof of what is being said. Many times these perpetrators will remove their messages right after they have sent them and then you have no proof of their threats.
6)   Don’t respond to negative comments. You can’t argue with crazy and it will only make you look bad if you try.
7)   Remove yourself from negative groups. Life is too short to participate in trash talk on the Internet.
8)   Keep your posts positive. Most of the time, people really only want to see the good stuff happening in the world. If they aren’t those kind of people and they thrive on negative energy, don’t associate with them. It will only bring you down with them.  You can’t change negative people into becoming positive people and thinking you might be a good influence on such people is delusional. People change because THEY want to not because YOU want them to. The biggest reason to keep your posts positive is that once it is out there, there is a trail. Employers or friends may see negative posts you put out there and it may color their view of you.
9)    Ask yourself if it is worth your time and energy responding. Most of the people attacking don’t want to hear your side anyway. They are just participating in a mob mentality. Walking away from a hopeless debate can be the healthiest thing you can do for yourself. You don’t owe an explanation to anyone being hateful to you on line.
10)    Have empathy not hate. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. The world could use more empathetic people in it. It helps to understand that most of the people that write negative comments on the Internet are not happy with themselves and many are reacting to their own jealous and inferior feelings.

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1 reply »

  1. I was eating a Kit Kat while reading this (not a chocolate chip cookie),ha ha! Couldn’t be more true! While social media has its perks, it also has its downside, one we’ve all seen and experienced! For whatever reason people seem to get more “enjoyment” or “excitement” out of negativity, rarely do people want to focus on the good, and positive. I prefer the bright side, and a fuller glass 🙂


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