THE absence of normal human interaction on websites such as Facebook and Twitter actively encourage people to say things they regret, a study suggests.
Internet users were warned over the dangers of pressing the “send” button in haste as research suggested that millions of people have posted comments and messages online which they later wished they had not.
An Oxford University behaviour expert blamed the absence of the “checks and balances” found in everyday face-to-face communication for the trend.
Facial expressions, reactions such as laughter and vocal tones are all vital natural tools in helping people judge what they say, according to Prof Robin Dunbar, Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford.
In extreme cases, its absence can lead to online bullying, he warned.
His comments came as a survey of 2,000 internet users found that more than half believe social media is replacing face-to-face communication.
Yet a quarter of those polled admitted writing personal remarks to someone online which they would never say to their face.
A similar proportion admitted posting material or comments on social media sites which they later regretted.
Of those 44 per cent said they later realised it was inappropriate while 27 per cent accepted it had caused upset.
But one in five admitted that they “rarely, or never” stop to check what they have written before clicking “send”.
Men showed less caution than women, with less than a third stopping to check, compared with four out of 10 among female respondents.
The findings were contained in a report about internet behaviour carried out for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust.
The theme of this year’s commemoration day - which is today - is “Speak up, Speak out”, urging people to combat hate speech and discrimination including on the internet.
The study showed that social media can often be a force for good.
Four out of 10 people said they had used sites such as Twitter or Facebook to speak up for causes they feel passionate about and 44 per cent convinced they had seen concrete changes as a result of things they had posted.
But Prof Dunbar, who analysed the results for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, said: “It is important to remember that it is through experience in face-to-face interactions that we learn many of the social skills needed to navigate our way through our complex social world.
“Our research has shown that people are more prone to saying something on social media that they later regret, because in these digital environments we don’t receive the immediate checks and balances that we get during face-to-face interactions.
“This can therefore result in a careless or inappropriate tweet, or at worst, cyber bullying.”
He added: “There is something about seeing the whites of people’s eyes in interaction which gives you pause and prevents most of us at least from being very rude to people.
“There is something about the responsiveness of the other individual that we are very, very quick to pick up on.”
A study carried out for the “knowthenet” internet awareness campaign last year showed that millions of people regularly risk breaking the law because of messages they had posted.
In a string of court cases following last summer’s riots, young people were jailed for inciting violence on the internet – in some cases for comments which they took down themselves only a few hours later.