A recent study by two psychologists from the University of Amsterdam looks at the evolution of online discourse amongst teenagers over the last couple of decades. As they delve into how the saturation of Internet access and the emergence of online social networks has encouraged teens to add an online element to their existing face-to-face relationships, they discuss the nature of these interactions:

Valkenburg and Peter believe that the 21st century Internet encourages honest talking about very personal issues – feelings, worries, vulnerabilities – that are difficult for many self-conscious teens to talk about. When they communicate through the Internet, they have fewer sounds and sights and social cues to distract them, so they become less concerned with how others perceive them. This in turn reduces inhibition, leading to unusually intimate talk.

The psychologists have also shown that “hyperpersonal” Internet talk leads to higher quality friendships, and that these quality friendships buffer teenagers against stress and lead to greater happiness. However, solitary “surfing” of the Internet has no positive effects on connectedness or well-being, and hanging around public chat rooms – though much rarer – still appears psychologically risky.

They’re describing what’s often been called the “online disinhibition effect,” and it’s not limited to teens. For many people, interacting online leads us to disclose and to share more intimately and with less self-censoring than in face-to-face communication. And for some folks in some situations, this can be a great thing. In other scenarios, it can lead to putting emotional trust in someone who might, it turns out, not really be trustworthy. I do question the reference at the end of the quote to “solitary surfing” — what do they mean by “solitary?” Nonetheless, it’s useful to reflect on our online relationships and take stock: Is it true for me? Do I tend to be more open in online interactions than in face-to-face ones? If so, does this always happen for me? Or only in some situations?

Online disinhibition isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s all about context and the particulars of the relationship. If you find that you are less inhibited in online interactions, are you able to tell when this openness has a good result versus when, upon reflection, you might have overshared? This type of social judgment — when and how much to reveal, based on the other person(s) and the situation — is crucial in all relationships, no less online than in face-to-face interactions.