I have a quick quiz I’d like you to take. Open up your favorite social media platform and go through the first 20 posts from your “friends.” What percentage of posts are characterized by encouraging messages from others and positive helpful news articles designed to build you up and give you hope? Now count the number of posts that are aggressive in nature and that relate negative news articles that make you worried, resentful, or even hopeless. My hunch is that a large amount of the information you are consuming online is negative and angry. In fact, if we believe the research about the effect of social media on our functioning, it is fair to say that every time we open our phone or our computer, our brain is walking onto a battlefield that is driven by angry people who are delivering fear and anxiety directly into our mind. Many online interactions are extraordinarily aggressive, and they tend not to yield the social decorum or restraint we see in face-to-face interactions. How many times have you read a post or a comment made online that made you stop and say, “I can’t believe he just said that!” Sometimes I even catch myself saying, “I can’t believe I said that!” My hunch is, I’m not alone in my shock in how we treat each other in the virtual environment and we can probably all agree that most of us need a crash course in how to treat each other online. Toward that end, I offer the following rules of engagement for the battle to make our online experience happier and healthier.
1. Lead with empathy
There are many theories as to why people tend to have such angry and aggressive personas online, but most psychologists and counselors agree that the one-sided nature of online communication is a big part of the problem. Whenever people have the opportunity to be involved in monologues, rather than dialogues, they tend to struggle to see the validity of different perspectives and opinions. The further you get from face-to-face, real-time dialogue, the harder it is to empathize with others. Real communication is really about taking someone else’s perspective, understanding it, and then responding to it. Make the decision today to never respond or post without first considering other people’s point of view. This includes showing respect and consideration for another person’s right to think, feel, and act in ways that are different than yours!
2. Cooldown first
As a general rule, never respond to anyone when you are fuming. Wait it out. When you read a news article or post that seems outrageous in the moment, it is normal to feel an urgency to get your thoughts out there to set people straight. Don’t do it because your response will invariably not come outright. Remember that when you are angry, it is very difficult to think rationally because your frontal lobe has literally been hijacked by the fight or flight response. If you take the time to cool down you will most likely begin to see things in a less categorical, black and white manner and have a more measured and empathetic response.
3. Understand the root of the anger
Are we all really that angry? Seriously, if you look at the way we are interacting online you might think that our culture is full of a bunch of people that have chronic pervasive anger. After thousands of hours working with people in the clinical office, I don’t believe that we are all that angry. But I do think that we are all struggling with deeper emotions that we are much more uncomfortable expressing. Most of the time, anger is covering up other more core emotions like sadness, or hurt, or frustration, or rejection, or fear, or plain old chronic stress. Once you can identify and articulate the underlying emotion, then you are ready to actually have a productive conversation. Now I understand that you might not want to share every core emotion you have with the world online, but that’s probably a good boundary to set for yourself. The end result will be that we all share a little less and listen a little more. And that’s a good thing because when you do decide to communicate, you will be more likely to share the core emotions that will pull people into healthy dialogues rather than angry battles.
If every one of the people you interact with online decided to follow these simple ground rules, it would change everything. The internet would instantly change from a negative battleground to a place where people treated one another with respect and dignity. But let’s be honest, not everyone on the internet is going to follow our simple 3 point plan. But you can and so can I. In doing so, we instantly become a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. While we might not fix the internet, we can do our part to make it a happier healthier place for ourselves and for others.