Explanation

The Online Disinhibition Effect describes the phenomenon that humans do not feel the same constraints communicating online as they do when they are communicating in person. This effect explains much of the inaccurate healthcare information online. Benign Online Disinhibition explains well meaning people offering healthcare advice and insight without the adequate knowledge. Inaccurate information can lead to poor healthcare decisions and increased health anxiety.
Toxic Online Disinhibition explains content that is designed to cause distress in the reader (trolling). Both behaviours are prevented in person by the risk of exposure or cross examination. These terms were coined by Jonathan Suler over 20 years ago.

Medical Communication Example

Most examples of this phenomenon appear on social media, in comments sections or in support groups. People offering advice simply to participate in a conversation – often people commit to statements they are unsure of. “You should never use a magnet with an ICD!” – a false but well meaning and ‘benign’ comment.

Example of Utility

Neutralising.

As a reader the unverified information that can occur as a result of this phenomenon can be ‘neutralised’ by avoiding unverified websites.

If you own or manage an online healthcare platform this behaviour is difficult to discourage because of its nature, however disabling anonymous comments and requiring verified personal accounts will decrease prevalence on your online platform. It should also be easy for comments to be reported if you welcome external comments/content creation.

Utilising.

The Online Disinhibition effect is not all bad. The lack of constraint people feel when interacting with a screen and not a human, leads to better truthfulness. If you are a doctor’s surgery or hospital and you are carrying out a health questionnaire, your results will be more accurate if the patient fills it in online without another human present. If you want to know how much a person drinks each night, they may moderate their answer as they feel judgment is inevitable – even if reassured that the HCP is ‘not here to judge’.