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Smartphones, Trolls and Social Black Holes: Why Technology Is Not the Enemy of Connection

07/05/2015 11:27 BST | Updated 06/05/2016 10:59 BST

Doomsayers are fond of telling us that digital technology will destroy society as we know it. We will become atomised creatures, glued to machines, never communicating with real people, cut off from each other, and so on. Of course, there is more than a hint of 'youth-of-today' criticism here - a trope which goes back at least as far as Aristotle - but even more subtle proponents tend to suggest that 'technology' is inherently opposed to 'people': more phones means less friends.

With this in mind, it's encouraging to see wellbeing games provider Happify present data (via HuffPo) suggesting that smartphones may not, in fact, make people less sociable or neighbourly. This is not to say that the impact of digital is entirely positive, simply that there is not necessarily a contradiction between technology use and social connections in the offline world - indeed, much social technology is more suited to maintaining existing relationships with friends, family and colleagues than it is to forming new connections.

Implicit in this sort of analysis is the suggestion that social connections exclusively formed and conducted online are somehow inferior to relationships offline - often tellingly described as 'in the real world'. Although the sheer number of happy couples means that online dating is now pretty widely accepted, other online connections are viewed with distinct suspicion: the implication is often that people form connections online because they can't form them offline. This might be because they don't have the time or mobility to see people face to face. However, there can also be a sneaky assumption that online relationships are in some way worse, or weird, or even potentially dangerous.

Much of the concern about online-only interactions focusses on the impact of anonymity: who is hiding behind that cartoon avatar? A predator, a troll, someone pretending to be something they're not? The negative effects of online anonymity can be very negative indeed - every week seems to bring a new story of prominent people, especially women, being subject to death or rape threats on Twitter. Being unknown or distant can change people's behaviour: people who would never consider threatening or aggressive activity offline may indulge it in online, and are apparently often shocked to discover the impact their words have had on the people they target.

This phenomenon is part of the 'online disinhibition effect', first described by Professor of Psychology John Suler almost ten years ago. Because people are removed from their normal circles and their offline identities, people believe they can behave badly with low risk of social or legal consequence. For evidence of this destructiveness, we could see Twitter's recent attempts to combat the "firehose" of online abuse, or the change in UK law to criminalise 'revenge porn'. But this same fact may also mean people are more open and sharing online, more willing to help others without fear of embarrassment - witness the many heart-warming stories of people coming together online to solve problems, help individuals, or share stories.

So while we're right to fear the spectre of the internet troll, neither technology nor anonymity are bad in and of themselves. And they certainly don't spell loneliness or distance: paradoxically, they can foster intimacy amongst people who, for anonymity's sake, must remain strangers. One member of Big White Wall, a digital, anonymous mental health service said, "Anonymity on Big White Wall is important because you feel safe and you can talk about anything without people knowing you and judging you."

And that's the flipside of the online disinhibition effect. It might also help you open up, and seek help for things you'd be careful to conceal in your everyday life. At Big White Wall, we have 24/7 professional moderation to make sure that our members are safe and protected from the bad elements of online disinhibition, and we keep everyone anonymous all the time. But in our established and supportive community, with thousands joining every year, we find that nastiness is actually pretty uncommon. Far more common is this feeling free to open up: almost three quarters of our members say they've shared something on Big White Wall that they never shared before. Mental health can be difficult to talk about, but here the online disinhibition effect can be used for good. So by all means bemoan the way the internet enables trolling, but don't forget that it also creates hope, support and a safe place to be for many people who would otherwise struggle in silence.