The internet can be a pretty grubby place. Anyone who’s ever copped online flack can attest to that (myself included, when a vid I made went viral and people told me they wish I’d got hit by a bus). With the cloak of anonymity and the benefit of convenience, people can say mostly whatever they like, whenever they want, to whomever is there. This means that the most insensitive, misinformed, ignorant and downright offensive of people have a platform through which to engage and enrage us.
Research says we spend an average of 2hrs 22min on social media sites per day, so it’s unsurprising that our volatile online interactions are having a damaging effect on our overall wellbeing. Recent studies out of the University of Tampa have shown that time spent on social media sites leads to a decrease in mood, with bad moods being heightened when exposed to content we find negative or offensive. But when “just getting off the internet” might not always be an option, it’s important to learn how we can engage online more mindfully. That means asking…
Why are we getting so offended? Can we avoid it? And what should we do to make sure we put our mental health first when fighting the good (online) fight?
I sat down for a chat with one of Indigo’s Clinical Psychologists, Lara Kocijan, to learn more about the psychology of offence, and how we can uphold our values and safeguard our mental health when venturing into the shit-show that is an online comments section.
Are we more easily offended now than ever before?
I don’t really think we’re more easily offended now than in the past. But perhaps we do have more freedom to become offended by something, because there’s new and emerging rules around what you can and can’t say – appropriately, most of the time.
And we certainly have much more ease and access to say we’re offended by things, with the capacity online to be able to talk about it. Whereas in the past, the resentment or offence was much more silent. You might have told a friend or a family member. Maybe a letter to the editor was the most public way to voice your outrage or offence at something. But now it’s much easier to jump on your laptop and get outraged.
Do you think having an online platform fuels our outrage?
I think so, And I think that’s because there’s no time to stop and pause and think, there’s just the reaction – immediately. And so people are responding in potentially really abusive ways, because they’re so viscerally enraged by something.
It creates this intensity around it, because everything is so emotionally charged. And people can then respond immediately and there’s a volatile back and forth. It can turn into this huge cycle of viciousness, which perhaps wouldn’t have happened if you had to sit there and write your letter to the editor and pop it in an envelope and mail it off. There was a delay, which we don’t really have anymore, that pause.
What do you feel is at the root of our online outrage and offence?
In my experience, we mostly get impacted by something when it taps into our “wounding” or something that is important or significant to us. So if we’ve been oppressed in some way, if we’ve been ostracised, or if we’re part of a minority culture or sexual orientation group then things that tap at our sore spots, at our injuries and hurt is usually when what we become most reactive to. The same can be said of privilege and the fear of maybe losing some of that privilege we’ve grown accustomed to.
And so we’re responsible for taking care of our hurt. When we’ve been injured by something, it’s our job to take responsibility and acknowledge “Wow, that one really got in”, “That one stung”, “I’m enraged by that”. But it’s also our responsibility not to handball that hurt onto somebody else, because all that does is ripple or perpetuate the hurt.
Too often we don’t take responsibility for our hurt so we come in from a victimised position, saying “You’ve made me feel bad, therefore you’re wrong and you’re stupid”. It’s impossible to censor the whole internet around yourself just so your raw nerves don’t get sparked. So we must be mindful to take care of ourselves and not hurt or harm others in our defensiveness or distress.
When is it worth getting involved in an online tussle?
There might be some obligation, at times, to educate. If I know something and see someone saying something that is clearly inaccurate, it’s valid to counter it with additional information.
One of the ways of safeguarding ourselves is being mindful in our intentions. So why am I sharing this piece of information? Because if my intention is to change people’s minds, then I have no control whether that’s going to be the guaranteed outcome. If I’m sharing this information to offer another perspective, I have to stay aware that people can (and probably will) say whatever they want about it. Putting space between who you are and what you have to say might be a way of buffering – so the attack doesn’t feel so personal.
But if my intention is “I want to be right, I want them to be wrong” – there’s lots of ego in that. And a smashed ego hurts.
4 things to consider before getting involved in heated online discussions…
Pause. It’s easy to go “stacks-on” and respond in a really immediate and emotionally-charged way like “You’re all fucked!”. But this makes any response feel very personal because you’re engaging from an emotionally vulnerable place. Versus “I have some information I’d like to offer because I think that there might be something missing here about that way you see the world.”
Ask “Why?” Why are you sharing this? Why are you giving your opinions? What’s your motivation behind it? If I’m offering my opinion as an act of service, then there’s a safe guard between me and my opinion. If I’m offering my opinion to prove I’m right and feel better about myself, then I’m leaving myself open to personalising it.
Don’t get yourself involved in business that’s not yours. Today, there is a kind of hyper-vigilance around things where people seem to want to educate as a form of moral posturing or virtue signalling. It may not be your place to get all up in something that you aren’t that fully aware of, especially in regards to the history, relevance and nuance around it. If you’ve studied, are socially/culturally involved, or more educated on a certain topic than the layperson than it might be an appropriate place to put your educated opinion in.
Only speak when people want to listen to you. If you’re trying to educate and you’re being met with defensive, abusive responses – step away. You can only share with someone if they’re willing to listen and if they’re not, then stop. Not because you need to be censored but because it’s pointless and you’re wasting time and energy. Only discuss, share and educate when it’s going to be useful and people are receptive.
How do we know if something’s offensive or straight-up abusive?
When I’m using my existence – and whether that’s my words or my space or my physical proximity to you – when me and my world – is attempting to control, oppress, denigrate, keep you small – that’s abusive.
If my engagement with you is intended to keep our interaction equal, then there’s a better chance you’re having a respectful conversation and what you’re getting offended at – which you’re entitled to – might not be as a result of being abusive.
Calling out abuse, insulting comments and personal attacks is important. It’s not okay when people are abusive to us. Calling it out is really necessary because either someone doesn’t know what they’re doing and they might be acting out of ignorance. Or else, they’re being purposely hurtful or derogatory, and then they definitely need to be called on it – because that’s not on. That’s not how you communicate with another person – online or offline.
Steps to safe-guarding our mental health when we’re hurt by online interactions.
- Pause. Put the computer away. Step outside. Take a breath.
- Try and check in with what you might have been offended by. Has this hurt me personally? Has it hurt my culture? My history? Try and gauge what about the scenario you feel attacked by. At the same time, acknowledge that sometimes people are just offensive, and there’s no point in trying to be introspective about why you’ve been hurt. Sometimes someone is just straight-up being a dick.
- Get some emotional support. Get some good people around you and have real, human interactions. Online interaction is no substitute for real world communication and connection.
- Ask yourself “How important is this really?” In five years time, is this really going to be a major issue in your life? If it is, then you probably need to do something about it. If it isn’t, maybe don’t sweat it.
- Journaling, or, if you prefer talking – chat to a therapist. Often as you’re talking, or writing in these safe spaces, you can release your thoughts and emotions and help understand yourself better in the process.
They also say that the cadence of handwriting much more closely matches the cadence of thought. Whereas when we type online, we often type much faster so things are often much more rapid – it can almost rev our thoughts and emotions up. Hand-writing us forces our thoughts to slow down to the pace we can match with our pen, which almost forces us into mindfulness.