header_piece

Isolation and Anonymity Online

When I was ten years old, a group of outlaw bikers stopped for a few hours in my grandparents’ idyllic lake shore community: Port Sanilac, Michigan. Close to a hundred bikers, many with a female companion in tow, milled around the town on that Saturday afternoon, striking panic into passers-by. None of the terror-stricken townspeople ventured so much as “hello” to the unwelcome hellions. None, that is, except my mother. She went up to the group and tried, as always, to make friends. “This place sucks,” a dirty, scowling woman barked at my mother. The woman has become part of family lore and is still called “that motorcycle mama.” “Well, dear,” my mother replied, “these people have different values than you.” A few brief conversational volleys between my mother and the woman were interrupted as the group hastily decided to leave, ceremoniously rumbling two by two out of town. As memorable as that roaring mass of Harley Davidsons was, my mother’s words to me that day stick in my head even more: “Never say behind someone’s back what you don’t have the courage to say face to face.”

Following this advice has been a struggle for me, even more so with the ease of criticism and character assassination made possible by the Internet. It used to be that interpersonal cowards were relegated to gossiping out of earshot about others they didn’t like or felt compelled to criticize. Nowadays, the Internet has allowed these folks to spew their invective without having to overcome their interpersonal fears and inhibitions.

Caylee, a 13-year-old participant in my ADHD study groups, went for a few weeks of inpatient substance abuse treatment. She returned to school and discovered that a few girls had virtually destroyed her reputation through daily Facebook rumors that asserted, variously, that she had tried to commit suicide, was pregnant, and had started to engage in body carving. Facebook bullying is becoming an increasing problem in middle and high schools.

Internet message boards have traditionally been anonymous, but the practice of trolling puts this in peril. Trolls go on message boards and leave inflammatory and outrageous comments, seemingly hoping to sow discord. Many passive aggressive and unhappy people use the Internet to drag others into their malaise.

The anonymity offered by the cyber world inspires many unfortunate folks to play out the darker sides of their nature. A 27-year-old participant in one of my cyber recovery groups had trust issues. She had met her boyfriend on an online dating site, but had trouble believing he was committed to her. She set up a fake profile on the site to see if he was chatting with other women. She made the profile quite alluring for him, putting in details she knew would catch his eye. The unsuspecting man did message back. She subsequently ended the relationship. She still wonders if she—and her insecurities—simply sabotaged a good thing.

The anonymity of the cyber world deprives us of the opportunity to see facial expressions, body language and, when indulging in online dating, to know whether the person we’re talking to is giving his or her true age, weight and height. The Internet allows us to be interpersonal cowards and pass the time sitting safely in the computer chair, not working through our fears and inhibitions.  While the Internet does make many aspects of communication and connection easier, it carries the very real danger of driving us apart.

18 Responses to “Isolation and Anonymity Online”

  1. Jim says:

    Like Robyn had said, one step in the right direction would certainly be parents taking the time to observe exactly what their children are doing online, rather than turning the other cheek and addressing it only when it becomes a serious problem.

    Great blog Kevin

  2. You definitely have a style all your own when it comes to producing these great blog posts. Im absolutely going to become one of your new regular blog subscribers.

  3. Dr. Woo says:

    Great post Kevin!

  4. Michael Irwin says:

    I think being on the internet is such a disembodying experience; people do extreme things, things they would never do if they were face to face with the other people involved.

    I try, whenever possible, to deal with my conflicts face to face. I am liable to say things on the phone , sms or email that I would never say if I were looking at the other person’s eyes.

    If the person is not in front of me in real time/face time then what I perceive he/she is perceiving is largely the fruit of my imagination. And I have learned the hard way just how unreliable that can be as a tool to engage with the real world.

    Good article,

    Thanks Kevin…..keep up this excellent work.

  5. Brian Wiers says:

    Good post, I won’t hid behind the anonymity of the internet to tell you so :).

  6. Robyn says:

    What I would like to know is, where are the parents of these 13-year-olds posting nasty comments on Facebook? Why are they not looking at what their children are doing online?

  7. Judy Mills says:

    Kevin, your comments strike such a strong chord with me today. A couple of days ago there was a collapse of a parking structure in downtown Windsor (where I live). The Mayor declared a state of emergency in order to call in special teams to go into the collapsed structure safely. Within hours there were comments on the newspaper article ridiculing him, using words just short enough of profanity to be posted. I was just short of shocked at the criticisms of emergency response personnel for not going in immediately to check for people inside, while the structure was still collapsing. (Protocols prevent them from putting anyone at risk.)

    So many times I have read comments where people attack other commenters, rather than addressing the issue. And I have some young acquaintances on Facebook who do exactly what you described… if I was closer to them I would be sitting them down and challenging what they are doing!

    It seems to me that there is a tremendous lack of self discipline in our culture at this time. People do what they want when they want. We don’t need to schedule things anymore… banking can be done 24/7 on line and at ATMs, stores are always open. Life has become loose, so to speak. And this really shows up on line, in the comments sections, on the social networking sites.

    Having said that, I love the connections I have to people because of the internet! What is the answer? Should computers come with timers that we can set to limit our usage? Would we use them? If we had to be identified by name when leaving comments, perhaps we would be more responsible? Or maybe the comments lists would just dry up.

    Keep writing, so people will keep thinking and talking about it. Awareness and education are the best tools I can think of against the danger!

    Judy

    • kevin says:

      Judy, the situation, in my opinion, is about balance. I am one of those people who struggles with moderation in many aspects of my life. Luckily, I have been able to avoid that tendency with substances like alcohol, although I did struggle with cigarettes in my teen years. I suppose I just have cerebral “wiring” that predisposes me to excess. I just have to keep trying to come back to balance, Judy, and sometimes I need the support of friends and family to do that. Thank you for helping me and others be more aware. Please come back and post again. You have really helped take the discussion to a higher level!

  8. Michael says:

    Kevin, excellent blog and I couldn’t agree with you more! It’s sad what lengths children will go to smear other kids’ reputations with the click of a button!

    Parents need to pay attention to this type of activity because as we all know – what goes around comes around!

    • kevin says:

      Thanks for your remarks, Mike. Online perpetrators can easily become victims. The existence of the Internet necessitates a whole new level of parental vigilance. It’s no longer just about the kids with whom your child associates, but rather what he or she is exposed to online and, specifically, on social networking sites like Facebook.

Leave a Reply



Footer_Piece