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.