Is arguing online actually good for your mental health?

Do negative interactions lead to negative emotions, or can arguing on the internet actually be positive for people's mental health? 

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The internet was invented for arguments. Forget your cheeseburger-craving cats, your puppy dog Snapchat filters, and your one-day-delivered tongue scrapers from Amazon. Be gone your cinnamon challenges, your generous Nigerian princes, and Charlie’s brother’s bitten finger. The only reason that everyone in the world really wants to be connected in a vast web of networks is to tell one another that they’re wrong. So wrong.

If you’ve clicked on this article, it’s fair to say you probably argue online – and lots of us do. But although there is an abundance of literature on why we do this (the power of anonymity, constructing an online identity, straight-up boredom) there is little research on how it affects us. To find out more, I created a survey to ask people across the web about their experiences and asked Dr Dawn Branley, a health and social psychologist specialising in the risks and benefits of internet use, for her thoughts.

Mixed emotions

Whether arguing online affects us for better or for worse – it does affect us. Sixty per cent of us feel a racing heart and a rush of adrenaline when arguing online, and fifty percent of respondents claimed that they become “somewhat” emotionally involved in their arguments. In fact, only 4.6 per cent of people claimed to be “not at all” emotionally involved in the arguments they have on the internet.

But what are we feeling? The most common emotional reaction is frustration, with 27.5 per cent of people claiming they felt this when arguing online and a further 18 per cent saying they felt sad when people misconstrued their words and meaning. “Unfortunately the written word can often fail to portray the exact message, thoughts, humour or emotions of the user,” says Branley. “Without facial expressions and body language to aid our understanding, it is all too easy for written words to be misconstrued.”  

The second most common emotional reaction (surprise, surprise, it’s not surprise) was anger, at 13.5 per cent. Only 1.6 per cent of people felt pride and 5.7 per cent felt excitement, so it’s clear we don’t get into arguments for a little happiness boost.

“Although it is possible that some users may find arguing online to be a form of catharsis – i.e., a release of negative emotion – some studies suggest that ranting or venting our anger online actually appears to intensify the negative feelings rather than reduce them,” Branley says.

Where do broken hearts go?

Thankfully, however, most people’s negative emotions don’t seem to last for long. Thirty per cent of respondents said their emotional reaction only lasted as long as the argument itself, whilst a further 26 per cent said it lasted half an hour.

As with all things, some people are more affected than others, with 14 per cent stating that their emotional reaction lasted for a day, and 3.6 per cent feeling week-long emotional effects.

“I regularly get into confrontations and arguments online on Facebook & Twitter. They often leave me feeling fatigued, anxious and annoyed at myself for getting involved,” wrote one anonymous respondent. “However I often feel myself ‘compelled’ to get into a spat, and I do feel a rush from it. Even waiting for a response gives me 'a buzz' of anticipation.”

So what does this mean for short and long term mental health?

The majority of those surveyed reported that arguing online didn’t affect their mental health, but for 35.8 per cent of us, it does. Stress was the most common consequence, though 12.6 per cent of people claimed it made them depressed and 24 per cent became anxious. Though a small number, it is notable that 2.6 per cent of people said it made them want to self-harm and for 11 per cent of people it exacerbated pre-existing mental health conditions.

“If the user is already in a vulnerable state of mind, arguing could cause distress,” says Branley, noting that arguing specifically with a troll is “likely to offer no benefit” to such a user. “Although the internet provides a good platform for healthy debate, it is important to evaluate the situation and decide whether any good will actually come from engaging in online debate,” she says.

Mass-debation is not a sin

The problem with surveys is that being allowed to self-report on our own behaviour can lead to things looking a little rosier than they would otherwise. For example, 79.4 per cent of respondents said that on the whole they didn’t start arguments online but only responded to people who argued with them. The most common reason people gave for getting into arguments was “To have an intellectual debate and consider all sides of the argument” which – and if you’ve ever argued online, feel free to join in here – ha, ha, ha, ha. Ha.

But this self-perception may go some way to explaining why many people aren’t badly affected by heated exchanges online. Branley says that general online communication (i.e. not arguing) has been shown to be beneficial to users’ mental health, but the benefits of arguing are “not so clear”. Yet my survey revealed that 75.7 per cent of people have laughed because of an online argument and 9.4 per cent of people’s most common emotional reaction was amusement. Mocking your opponent (presumably because you find them idiotic) is an easy buffer to feeling vulnerable, although it doesn’t quite square with users’ belief that they consider all sides of a debate.

But arguing doesn’t just make us laugh, it makes us happy

Despite frustration being the most common emotional reaction to arguments, 77.5 per cent of people claim that arguing online has made them happy at one time or another. Why? Most commonly “because I felt I was making a clear and intelligent argument” (46.9 per cent). “I generally take the view that it's possible for human beings to converse rationally online. I think it is important to have an ethos of civility, and hope that by doing that others will learn,” wrote another anonymous respondent.

Contrary to what you might expect, then, arguing online might actually boost many people’s mental health via their self-esteem. This is particularly true when users get Likes or shares on their argument, with 15% of people citing this as the source of their happiness.

What did we learn?

Much like any argument, perhaps this article has too many points. It seems that if you are already emotionally vulnerable or have low self-esteem, arguing can have a very detrimental effect on your mental health. Most people, however, seem to feel a short negative emotional reaction with no long term repercussions. For some others, arguing can boost their self-esteem and lead them to actually feel better mentally than they did before.

Here’s the bit you’re waiting for, though. It’s all Corbyn’s fault. Explaining their responses to the survey, one user wrote: “I had never argued online until Jeremy Corbyn ran for the Labour leadership last summer. Now I do so regularly.” 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood