Amanda Gardner
August 02, 2012

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Just when you think Internet trolls can't possibly get any meaner, a 17-year-old was arrested this week for harassing Olympic diver Tom Daley after he failed to win a medal.

The teen tweeted "You let your dad down i hope you know that," referring to the fact that Daley was hoping to win the gold in honor of his father, who died last year from brain cancer.

What makes people say awful things on the Internet that they would never say in person? And it's not an isolated incident. Two Olympic athletes (Michel Morganella and Voula Papchristou) were also expelled from the games after inappropriate tweets.

Cyberbullying is all too common in chat rooms, message boards, Facebook, and the Twitter-sphere, says Alan Manevitz, M.D., a clinical psychiatrist with Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. "There's a freedom of speech without a fear of consequences," he says. "There's no inhibition. It's like being drunk."

While part of the reason for the bad behavior is simply the ability to express one's self without fear of physical consequences, there may be explanations rooted in science as well.

Studies have borne out the idea that people who are physically distanced from each other are less likely to play nice. One recent study found that game-show contestants were more likely to criticize a fellow contestant in the next room rather than one standing right next to them.

Similarly, a famous 1960s-era study found that people were willing to administer an electric shock (it was fake, but they didn't know it) to a person they couldn't see, even if they knew it was causing them serious pain.

Because humans are used to communicating in person, our brains are hard-wired to take in all manner of non-verbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions, tone and pitch of language as well as the pace at which people speak, explains Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center and Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City.

"When you move online, suddenly all those cues also removed," he says. "You are stripped of the nonverbal cues, the patterns of speech, the rate, tone and context and you're left with a lot of guesswork."

And when humans are faced with guesswork and ambiguity, they often perceive it as threatening and react accordingly. This may have saved your life in prehistoric times but in modern times, it can mean an escalating series of jabs on Twitter ending in handcuffs and a stint in jail.

Whether you're on the receiving or giving end of a heated Internet exchange, a simple time-out could be enough to defuse the situation.

"The number-one rule is pause," says Rego. "Don't write an email when you're angry or you can write it but don't send it."

Try to think before you type; it can help to picture the person in the same room with you or to read the exchange out loud before sending it. "That gives you the extra cue that's missing in an online world," Rego says.

If a person bullies you online, "let them know it's hurtful and ask them respectfully to stop," Dr. Manevitz said. Try to block contact with this person or alert your Internet provider. If that doesn't work, you can report it to the police, he adds.

Many states in the U.S. do have cyberbullying laws and others have them under consideration.

"It's no one's fault per se [but] if we can recognize that we're vulnerable to this, awareness can lead to change," Rego says. "There are a different set of rules and expectations and [we need to] be prepared to react in a way that's most appropriate."

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