Mean Behind a Screen


A middle schooler is grounded from her smartphone, and so the device is in the possession of her parents. They pick up the phone when it chimes, intending to silence it, and see a string of messages from 5 different classmates that say things like, “Go kill yourself,” and “I’m going to beat you until you are unable to speak.” The parents were glad they intercepted the messages, but wonder what effect these kinds of messages might have had on their child in the past.

A helping professional posts an opinion on his personal Facebook page. The comments by his fellows and friends become so hateful that he decides to delete the original post. Some of his relationships are damaged by the commentary of others.

A writer starts a blog to share ideas and improve her writing skills. She shuts down the blog after random strangers post comments like: “This is the stupidest load of bullshit I ever seen. I’ll never get the 5 minutes back I wasted reading this crap.”

Why are people so mean to each other online?

This is a question of interest to me as a mental health professional, a person with social media accounts, and a mom. Experts are researching the question, and trying to better understand. Theories posit that coming from behind a screen, it’s easier to say things one wouldn’t say to the face (or even to the voice on the telephone) of another person. And that makes sense, but I wonder why people online are so angry in the first place. Are human beings walking around in the world day to day with the level of rage we witness in the comments sections on social media? Do they want to say these awful things, but stop themselves?

Or, perhaps, does getting on social media cause rage and aggressive behavior? Does the constant string of alerts and attention grabbing content prime people to be in a reactive state of mind? Are people angry because they are online?

I don’t think we have good answers to these and other important questions about the online world yet. But knowing that online behavior is different than real world behavior might inform all of us- as professionals, as people with social media accounts, and as parents.

Hateful online behavior is one reason to limit time in front of a screen, for ourselves and for our kids. While some personalities an easily brush off harsh attacks, others deeply internalize the hate and are harmed by it.


Posted on August 13, 2018 .