Internet Anger

What is internet anger?
Internet anger is what I call the anger that results from online interactions and disputes, usually on social media (e.g, Facebook, Twitter) but also in email and even text exchanges.  It’s very common; a 2013 study by Fan and colleagues, found that anger spread faster online than fear, disgust, or sadness, making it the most “viral” emotion.

How is it different from regular anger?
The emotion itself is the same as offline anger and, for the most part, so are the causes.

What makes internet anger so problematic is how people sometimes respond to their angry feelings.  Angry internet users will often rant in a way that offends people or damages relationships.  Likewise, people who rant online often have problems with their anger offline too.  According to a study my research team and I did in 2013, people who frequently ranted online were likely to experience more maladaptive anger in their offline life than others.

Why do people rant online?
First, because it feels good.  That same 2013 study found that 100% of participants said they felt calm, relaxed, and relieved after they ranted online.  The trouble is that just because something feels good doesn’t mean that it’s good for you.  And, as I’ve described, there tend to be some consequences associated with expressing your anger online.

Another reason, though, is that the online environment tends to lend itself to problematic disputes.  We find ourselves with more opportunities to feel anger when we spend a lot of time online because we encounter more provocations (e.g., encountering political opinions we don’t agree with, news that angers us).

Likewise, online interactions lend themselves to problems stemming from social distance.  The distance between you and another person online may stop you from censoring yourself.  When you are on Facebook or Twitter, you aren’t looking the person in the eyes or listening to his or her side of the story.  If it were a face-to-face conversation, you might notice that he or she is truly reflecting on what you are saying and you may come to understand his or her perspective before things get too heated.  Even if that doesn’t happen, it’s just harder for most people to say hurtful things to a person’s face.

Finally, the electronic format worsens impulse control problems because it’s too quick and easy.  You can send your response immediately, when you are most angry, which influences what you write.  You are less rational and less likely to think through the consequences.

Is there a healthy way to express anger online?
Of course.  There are always healthy ways to express anger.  What’s important is that you think through your goals and the best way to achieve them.  Are you trying to convince the person of something?  Will that work? What’s the best way to do it?  Are you just trying to insult them? Is that a good idea?  Are you just trying to rant or are you looking for support?  If you’re looking for support, what’s the best way to express your frustration in order to get that support?

Even though online anger can be a problem, there is also a lot of potential for healthy anger expressions online.  Unlike in-person interactions, online interactions give you the opportunity to reflect on how you are feeling and what you are thinking before you respond.  You have time to ask yourself what your goals are and to think about how to best achieve them in ways you usually don’t during an in-person interaction.  The problem is that people rarely use that time.

How do I know if I have a problem with anger online?
I think the best way to know is to ask yourself what sorts of consequences you have experienced as a result of online disputes or online ranting (measure those anger consequences here).  Have you lost or harmed relationships with family or friends?  If so, you may want to rethink how you’re expressing your anger online.

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