Could internet chatting be bad for you? While some may feel that concerns about online safety are overblown, there are reasons to think that some kinds of online interactions could be detrimental to your mental health. In certain cases, they may even pose a physical safety risk.
Many of the problems with internet chat platforms come from deliberately malicious and hurtful users. Learning to disengage from unhealthy interactions can be a major help. It’s also often a good idea to limit your usage and make sure you’re emotionally anchored in the offline world. See below for some insights into the risks of communicating online and how to mitigate them.
Understanding The Problems With Internet Chat
Talking online often feels very safe compared to face-to-face interactions. After all, you’re (usually) far away from the people with whom you’re chatting, often sitting in the comfort of your own home. Yet there’s some evidence that it can still pose a problem:
- An experiment on University of Pennsylvania undergraduates found that greater social media use led to increased feelings of isolation and depression.
- A 2018 survey of more than 29,000 adolescents found that higher internet usage was correlated with higher stress, sadness, and suicidal thinking, as well as worse self-reported health.
- Researchers in the United Kingdom reported that heavy users of social media had worse sleep patterns.
- A survey of European youth internet users found that close to half of them had been cyberbullied.
Though much of the research into online risks has focused on the dangers to children and adolescents, adults can experience negative effects too. A 2021 literature review concluded that many adult victims of online harassment or stalking suffered negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety, depression, panic attacks, and thoughts of suicide.
If you’re thinking of harming yourself, you may want to seek help through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 988.
Why The Online Environment Can Be Detrimental
A big part of the reason that chatting online can pose risks is that people often feel free to engage in worse behavior over the internet than they would in everyday life. Some may deliberately set out to spread misinformation or cause shock and distress, sometimes for no reason other than amusement. This is often labeled “trolling”, but that term may be misleading, conveying a sense of annoying but harmless online pranks. In reality, some internet “trolls” go much further, engaging in behavior that crosses the line into harassment or abuse.
Psychological research has identified a phenomenon known as the “online disinhibition effect” which makes people less inclined to hold back on negative behavior when they’re interacting through the web. According to the linked research paper, there are six factors that make people feel fewer qualms about hurting others online:
People on the internet may feel like their actions aren’t linked to their personal identities. The people they’re talking with don’t know who they are, creating a sense that nothing they do can be personally connected to them.
In online conversations, neither party can perceive facial expressions, body language, or tone of voice. Disruptive people can’t see the effects their words have on other people or pick up non-verbal cues about how others feel about them.
There’s often a delay between action and reaction on the internet, which may make it easier for people to ignore or downplay the impact of their hurtful comments on others.
People tend to have very limited information about their conversation partners online, which can lead them to project ideas and images from their own minds onto the other person. In a sense, they’re addressing their words to a partly imaginary character.
The factors described above can cause people to feel like what happens on the internet isn’t part of “real life” — and therefore, the harmful things they do and say don’t matter.
Minimization Of Authority
The decentralized, unregulated nature of the internet can cause people to feel like no one is “in charge”, removing or reducing the fear of disapproval.
Predatory Behavior Online
Thoughtless or cruel words can be harmful to your mental health, but they aren’t the only dangers to be aware of when chatting online. Some people may use the secrecy of the internet and the ability to contact strangers to enable criminal behavior.
For example, some sexual predators may contact minors through online chats, aiming to convince them to give nude images or meet in person. Others may use internet conversations as an opportunity to harass or blackmail others for sexual purposes.
Online chats can also be used to facilitate identity theft. Criminals may act friendly to gain a victim’s trust and trick them into telling compromising information. Other types of cybercrime may rely on getting people to download malware from people they meet in an internet chat room.
Some internet users may also develop unhealthy fixations on people they meet online. Sometimes, this can escalate into real-world stalking or violence. If a person you’re talking with over the internet is able to learn your real identity and location, it’s possible they could pose a threat to your physical safety.
How To Reduce The Dangers Of Online Chat
Being aware of the potential negative effects of internet interactions can be an important part of avoiding them. Here are some specific strategies you can use to keep your mental health, digital safety, and personal well-being when using online chat services.
Limit Daily Usage
The internet can take a toll on your mental health by taking up huge portions of your time and attention. In addition to the direct impacts of overuse, such as staying up too late scrolling, excessive internet use may lead to feelings of isolation, stress, depression, and anxiety. Some researchers studying the negative impacts of social media have suggested that limiting usage to 30 minutes per day may be beneficial. It might be a good idea to expand this to an overall daily limit on internet communication — you could try restricting yourself to no more than an hour online every day.
Don’t Feed The Trolls
Some of the most hurtful messages online may come from people deliberately attempting to provoke negative reactions as a form of entertainment. While it may be tempting to criticize or reprimand someone for their negative remarks, the attention may only encourage them and prompt an even more antagonistic reply. This is the meaning behind the common online advice not to “feed the trolls” — when an online interaction is making you upset, sometimes the best approach is to disengage and stop responding.
Seek Out Supportive Environments
Many people spend time on the internet out of a desire to connect with others, only to find that negative interactions only increase their loneliness. If that sounds familiar, you might want to look for reputable online support groups instead of unmoderated chat rooms and forums. One good place to look might be the Mental Health America website. This nonprofit group offers a place where those living with mental health challenges can offer each other advice and encouragement.
Avoid Revealing Personal Information
Giving information about yourself online can be a major risk factor in being victimized. If someone whom you only know through the internet asks you for personal details that might identify you, it’s often best to think long and hard about why they need that information. Remember that some online criminals are willing to spend months developing a relationship in order to gain a victim’s trust.
Keep Your Images Nonpublic
The forwarding of revealing or explicit images of victims is a common tactic among online harassers. It’s often a good idea to avoid sending intimate photos of yourself to anyone online. Even if you know and trust the other person, can you trust that their devices won’t be hacked by someone else?
Prioritize Offline Relationships
The ease of connecting with people online can make it easy to slip into a pattern of conducting most of your social interaction through the internet. Unfortunately, this may also make you more susceptible to the negative consequences of unhealthy online interactions. You may want to budget time for in-person interactions with friends and loved ones, maintaining a strong emotional support network that’s not tied to your online activity. That way, you’ll still have people to talk with during the times when you have to step away from the computer.
Therapy Can Help With The Mental Health Effects Of Online Chats
If you’re concerned about the effect of your internet use on your well-being, it may be a good idea to get help from a trained therapist. Nowadays, it’s possible to participate in therapy through the internet, which may be helpful for those who find offline interactions difficult. Web-based therapy may also be easier to attend if you’re in a remote location or have transportation challenges. And online platforms can often provide a wider selection of potential therapists than local health services.
Online therapy has success rates similar to traditional, in-person psychiatric services. Studies comparing both methods have found that counseling conducted through the Internet can significantly improve mental health outcomes for clients. A substantial majority of those receiving online therapy reported that they were satisfied with the experience and felt comfortable telling information to their mental health care providers.
“I've had 3 or 4 sessions with Daniel, and each one has been incredibly productive. He has helped me reframe the way I think in specific cases, and I can tell it's helped me with my anxiety and feelings of isolation. His check-ins are thoughtful, and they also act as a reminder to continue to work on the skills/solutions he helps you develop. Overall, he's an amazing counselor.”
“Courtney is an amazing counselor. She helped me a lot feel less lonely during these times. She helped me with finding ways to stop ruminating. I definitely grew a bit these past few weeks with her help.”
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