How Personal Should You Get Online?

If you’re setting up a YouTube channel, an Instagram account, or a blog, how much of your personal life should you share? There seems to be an expectation that you’ll share all kinds of details, whether it’s photos of your kids or a discussion of your medical issues. But what’s right for you?

The following are some points consider:

You’re allowed to have boundaries

Even if you decide to post about personal topics, such as your mental health, you should draw boundaries. There are probably a variety of things that you still want to keep private.

You may think, “Of course I don’t have to share everything,” but it can be easy to forget, especially when people pressure you. People become interested in your personal life. They want to know more about your relationships and where you live. Many times, they’re just curious. But some people will dig into your life for worse reasons.

Also, keep in mind that you can reset your boundaries. For example, if you begin to talk about a medical problem you’ve been struggling with, you can later decide that you no longer want to discuss it. It’s up to you.

Resist Posting Impulsively

The click of a button often leads to regret. If you’re about to share something personal, take a break from your computer or phone. Do something else for a while. Consider the ramifications and whether it’s worth it for you to follow through on posting.

Sometimes, you become tempted to share personal information because you know it will get you more clicks, likes, and subscribes. But in the long run, will it be worthwhile for you? Will it harm you? You can’t know for sure how every decision will play out, but you can at least keep the risks and drawbacks in mind.

Ultimately, you may decide to share something personal. At the very least, don’t do it on an impulse. What you post can wind up staying on the Internet for as long as there is an Internet. Even if you delete it, people can make copies and post it elsewhere or use the Wayback Machine to find it.

Consider Your Safety

I’ve watched YouTube videos where you can see someone’s whole house, including entranceways. You can figure out where they live based on what other houses in the neighborhood look like or based on street signs. People also post videos and photos of their kids outside of easily identifiable structures, such as schools and churches.

Speaking of kids – child predators often steal images of children from social media and blogs. These can be ordinary photos, at least to normal people. But they wind up getting exchanged among creepy and dangerous people.

Keep safety in mind when posting online. For example, if you’re posting a short video of yourself, make sure there isn’t an envelope or a prescription bottle with your full name and address visible in the shot. Consider what people can learn about you from your posts. Can they see the make of your car? Are you wearing an ID badge from your workplace? Does the world really need to know your date of birth, your kids’ birthdays, and other identifying information?

Consider the Effects on Other People

Even if you’re fine with posting a lot of information about yourself, how much are you exposing about other people?

There may be tension between what you think would make excellent content and what other people need for privacy. You may want to include your spouse in photos posted publicly, but they may have no interest in appearing online. You may want your kids to feature prominently in your videos, and maybe they seem enthusiastic about it. But do they understand the potential pitfalls of appearing in videos that anyone can see?

How will your content change your relationship with your loved ones? For instance, if you’re frequently filming the time you spend with family and friends, it changes how you interact with them. If you’re sharing sensitive information about your kids, such as their medical history, how will they feel about this when they get older?

Five Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Mental Health (And Your Character)

Is using Twitter making you feel depressed or chronically enraged? How about scrolling through Instagram? The answer really depends on multiple factors, such as the accounts you follow, the amount of time you spend on these sites, your personality, and your general state of mind.

It’s simplistic to say that social media is entirely bad, when it can give you benefits, such as connecting with people over books you enjoy reading. But it’s also a potential underminer of mental health and character. In what ways can it hurt you?

Helplessness

It’s fine to stay informed about what’s happening in your community and around the world. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything, and there’s a limit to what you can do about the news you hear. For instance, if you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis, you may be able to donate to a reputable non-profit organization or advocate for better policies to prevent future crises. But you can’t physically swoop in and scoop people out of harm’s way.

If you’re on social media for long enough, you’re immersed in updates of terrible crimes, horrific accidents, and large-scale crises, including wars and natural disasters. It’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to be steeped in tragedy for hours on end.

You also get a front-row seat to all kinds of propaganda and dishonesty. Dishonesty isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Many people are eager to spread any information that appears to confirm their beliefs. You watch in real time how someone’s reputation gets trashed based on a lie or a profound distortion. Any corrections you share can feel like drops of water in a flood of lies.

When faced with this horrible torrent, helplessness is a common response. You begin to focus more on what you can’t do and on how much is beyond your help. You experience despair, or you become more numb and apathetic. You become less inclined to act in ways that are in your power. You adopt an all-or-nothing mentality: “If I can’t fix all of this, I can’t do anything. What’s the point.”

Dissociation

Spending a lot of time on social media can create rifts between your body, emotions, and thoughts. The relationships and activities of your offline existence fade in importance or resonance. You use what’s on your screen as a perpetual distraction from serious problems, such as chronic loneliness. You become alienated from your body, fixating instead on cartoon avatars or painstakingly tweaked and heavily filtered photos. Good health involves an integration of body and brain, and care for both. When you’re dissociated from yourself, you feel less real, less important.

Social Contagion

Various behaviors, emotions, and psychological conditions are subject to social influence. Suicidality and anorexia are two examples. “Tourette-like behaviors” is another one.

On different social media platforms, there are communities that encourage a lack of well-being. Years ago on Tumblr, for example, I saw groups of younger people fill their bios with lists of mental health problems, developmental disorders, medical issues, and obscure identities. Many times, these would be self-diagnosed, and there was a competitiveness to it. A longer list meant that you were more interesting and more authoritative; people had to listen to you, and you could tell them how they should think and feel about a particular issue. Taking steps to become mentally healthier was a sign that you had no serious problems to begin with. It was a sign that you were boring and “normal.” (Nobody in these circles wanted to be normal.)

This type of behavior isn’t limited to Tumblr, but what I saw on Tumblr was an excellent example of unwellness being turned into an identity. If you were depressed, you weren’t meant to think of depression as a part of your life that you treat and cope with. You’d make it part of your more permanent identity.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

On social media, you can always find people who are better-looking than you, more talented, more intelligent, and more popular. Many also seem to have a lively social life and strong relationships. Are they actually happier than you? Who knows. You’re looking at curated images and narratives. Some people may be genuinely happy, while others smile and pose through terrible pain. Regardless, a steady stream of posts and images can intensify feelings of dissatisfaction with yourself and different aspects of your life. And you may be fixated, stuck on scrolling past image after image of a happiness that appears to be unattainable to you.

Emotional Manipulation

Social media presents a skewed picture of people and life more generally. Posts that are more extreme and lacking in nuance generally get more views, clicks, likes, shares, and comments. The people most active on a site often behave in obsessive or abusive ways, without a sense of perspective.

You get into heated arguments with bots. You feed on a steady stream of what an algorithm sends your way. The stream of information contains lies and distortions, and how much do you absorb without fact-checking or questioning?

Plugging into social media twists your emotions around. You feel angry and outraged for hours. Or you ride on waves of vengeful pleasure. Or your stomach twists into anxious knots, and fear settles cold and heavy in your belly. The emotions stay with you long after you’ve looked away from the screen (and it’s so hard to stay away!). You’ve plugged in and received currents of algorithm-driven feelings, and it’s addictive – the emotions, the potential responses from people to your posts. Do you sense that you’re in control of your social media use?

Influencers Don’t Need to Be Political Commentators or Activists

Should people who have a large online platform comment on political events or become activists for a particular cause? Some would argue yes: Whether you’re amassing Instagram followers or picking up thousands of subscribers on YouTube, you’re obligated to say something about current events and take a stand. Preferably with the “right opinions,” whatever those happen to be.

But is this necessary or desirable?

In many cases, I think it would do more harm than good.

  1. I don’t like the idea that people should feel compelled to discuss a topic. For instance, if someone wants to post tons of awesome photos about gardening, just leave them to it. I can get political commentary elsewhere. There’s no shortage of political commentary online.
  2. The pressure to speak on a topic is often driven by momentary trends. It doesn’t account for what someone may care about most deeply. For example, an influencer may be dedicated to protecting endangered species in the Amazon Rain Forest. It’s a topic she’s researched and can speak about with some depth. But it isn’t necessarily what’s trending on Twitter.
  3. People don’t have the time or inclination to research every topic that dominates the news cycle and social media. If they feel pressured to state an opinion, they’ll often just try to figure out what’s expected from them. (What are their peers saying? Their offline social circle? Their audience?) The opinions they express often aren’t based on careful thought or facts. Most of the time, their main concern is to be socially acceptable and to not get piled on by some of the more fanatical activists. Furthermore, if they’re pressured to comment on breaking news, they may wind up sharing unverified stories and rumors, adding more falsities to the internet.
  4. Following up on the third point, the pressure to speak out often results in superficial gestures. Those gestures mean little in the face of deep-rooted, long-standing problems. You insert a hash tag in one of your posts or chant a slogan at the end of a 15-minute video, and that becomes activism.
  5. I don’t think it’s good for our psychological health to have every channel, every forum, become a battleground on different political topics. If I’m looking for a drawing tutorial, or if I’m watching a video about how to keep plants alive indoors, I just want to focus on art or on nurturing plant life. Being plugged into political issues round-the-clock doesn’t help people become more effective citizens or advocates. If anything, immersion in social media can give people a skewed picture of a topic. It can also warp emotions, putting people in protracted states of rage or despair.

If people want to talk or write about a topic, they can. My concern is with the social pressures, the expectations that someone with a platform needs to use it to broadcast certain opinions. For multiple reasons, pressuring influencers (or anyone online) to take a stance often isn’t a good idea.

Self-Image and Hills to Die On: Some Insights into Social Media Behaviors

I’m reading Influence by Robert Cialdini, and some parts of the book have been unsettling. Influence discusses strategies that are effective at changing people’s behavior and beliefs. Of course, not all techniques work on all people in all situations. But because they’re often effective enough, you’ll typically see them wielded by salespeople, political activists, cult leaders, and other folks who are deeply motivated to be persuasive.

One of the insights in the book is that people will often become the instruments of their own change. You nudge them towards a particular path, and they do the rest. Their brains begin to reinforce certain associations, build certain habits, and concoct rationalizations. People can easily overestimate how much control they have and can come to believe that an idea was their own all along.

I’ve also come across passages that provide insight into behaviors often seen on social media. The book initially came out in the 1980s, and the revised version I’m reading now was published in 2007. I think this was before the major social media sites became mainstream, so I don’t know if the author will bring them up at any point. But even though these excerpts don’t refer specifically to Twitter or Facebook, they’re still insightful about the way people often behave on those sites:

Continue reading “Self-Image and Hills to Die On: Some Insights into Social Media Behaviors”

When Children Become Branding Tools

A few months ago I came across an article about a young Instagram star, only 9 years old, whose posts were suddenly deleted after evidence came out that her older brother might be feeding her lines in a video.

At the article, you can find a quote from a family spokesperson about how the child is currently undergoing “rebranding.”

Her old brand had her swearing and getting into feuds with other social media celebrities for the amusement of millions of people who don’t know her or care about her.

What does the new brand of 9-year-old look like? I didn’t check, because kids shouldn’t be undergoing “rebranding.”

Recently, an Instagram “mommy blogger” posted a picture of one of her children and lamented how he doesn’t get as many likes or comments as her other children. It was his birthday, so she urged her followers to send him “alllllll the likes,” and she sadly wondered if, when he’s older, his self-worth will suffer once he lays eyes on his Instagram stats. (Why would he be looking at these stats, though? Why should a child have to worry about this…? Why?)

On the Internet, every part of a child’s life can become part of their public persona. The camera follows these kids into all corners of their lives – as much as their parents permit, and some parents don’t seem to care at all how much gets revealed.

It’s not that child exploitation is a new thing, only that the Internet allows it to become even more pervasive and invasive. Imagine you’re a kid sitting down to eat a bowl of cereal in the morning. Without your understanding and consent, your cereal eating becomes public fodder. Strangers stare at the images and judge you, liking or withholding likes, and commenting of course (Cute hair! Aww, looks sleepy! Don’t mean to be rude, but that haircut is not flattering! Why isn’t he eating something more nutritious? Why does this kid look so grumpy?! Smile a little, come on! Awww, cute smile!)

And it doesn’t stop with cereal eating. It can be anything at any time – brushing teeth, playing on a swing set, picking clothes to wear to school, having a meltdown at a supermarket (with the right branding, the meltdown can be spun as funny).

Parents who subject their kids to this onslaught of attention may argue that they don’t actually value their kids based on likes and other social media stats. However, they’re still focused on making their family brand look as good as possible, at all times, to as many strangers as possible. The kid picks up on this, even before they understand Instagram algorithms. The mom whose son needs more birthday love (from strangers?) is troubled by her kid’s Instagram performance, even if she publicly blames herself rather than him. “My insufficiency caused this statistical deficit,” she wrote.

What she meant by ‘insufficiency’ is unclear. Did she use the wrong filters for her son’s photos? Did she fail to capture him at the best angles? Is her son going to wind up feeling guilty and inadequate as his mother sighs about social media insufficiencies?

(Oh, that dear boy. It can’t be him. It’s me! And yet… my other children perform well, so… but no, he’s a dear boy, even if he can’t keep up with the others. But what makes him less likeable?)

Moving right along… how about this dad and stepmom who received five years of probation for child neglect after posting YouTube videos of their “pranks” on their kids. Anything for likes, clicks, and subscribes, right?

A while ago I read reports of a “social credit system” China is developing to rank citizens publicly by the value they have, as measured across dimensions that include wealth and social connections. Much as we shake our heads about how dystopian it all is, hopefully something we’ll never see in the US, we’re already priming ourselves and our kids psychologically to more easily accept a society where: a) you’re monitored a lot, maybe round-the-clock b) any behavior is up for scrutiny and judgment c) records of your images, words, thoughts, and deeds, are archived and can be dug up at any time, even decades later, and d) your value is indeed measured by ‘likes.’ Here we might think of it as personal branding rather than good citizenship, but it’s a mindset where you can find no worth outside of being seen and judged favorably by other people. And it’s a mindset inculcated in people from a young age. Even when parents don’t actively push it, the culture is still steeped in these values.