I don’t really make New Year’s resolutions. I prefer, instead, to make mine during mental health crises, when they tend to actually stick.
This was the case in mid-2017, when, during a nasty bout of burnout and depression, I vowed to stop arguing with people online. What had started as an idealistic, post-election attempt to break out of my online political echo-chamber was clearly, at that point, not helping my mental health. Digital conversations about You Know Who would leave me with palpable pounding in my chest and, sometimes, a bad mood that persisted for hours. Over time, these squabbles began to feel like little spurts of poison in my bloodstream. So I stopped. And, after months of not engaging in political spats on Facebook and Twitter, I felt noticeably better.
But then as 2017 wound down, I started talking politics online again. I wasn’t full-on screaming at people in all caps (which was never really my style, anyway), but I was starting to engage more, get angry more, and generally hopping back on the ol’ adrenaline rollercoaster. By year’s end, that familiar poison-in-my-veins feeling had returned, and so when the traditional Resolution Season arrived, I decided to stop again and speak to some experts about whether this digital political bickering is actually bad for my health.
The not-so-surprising answer is that, yes, arguing online is not great for your health. What was surprising, though, was how often these conversations veered toward something bigger, like how to hang on to your humanity in the Digital Age.
In order to fully understand the effects of arguing online, you’ve got to understand what it means to hold any kind of conversation online. Because while social media convos may seem vaguely similar to in-person dialogues—both involve words exchanged between people—we’re really talking about two distinct psychological activities.
Perhaps the biggest difference is that, when you talk to someone online, you enter a dialogue stripped of all traditional physical cues. You can’t see the other person’s face. You can’t hear the tone of their voice. “We live in a three-dimensional world, but online flattens it to just two dimensions,” says psychologist and George Washington School of Medicine instructor, Mary Alvord. Some variation of this idea was repeated time and again, by the mental-health experts I interviewed: Online interactions lack many of the signposts that have helped humans navigate conversations for eons.
But the differences don’t stop there. In-person arguments tend to have a finite lifespan, because a person can always simply leave the room. But there are at least two tangible—and scary—ways online arguments differ. The first is that what you say on social media is, generally, instantly public and permanent. “Imagine if your post or comment was on the ‘Hollywood’ sign or on a billboard,” says Joanne Sumerson, a research psychologist and former president of American Psychological Association’s Society for Media Psychology and Technology. “Because...whatever you’re saying is that out there.” And even if you decide to delete your comments, she reminds me, someone may have already snapped a screenshot.
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Then there’s the fact that our smartphones make it infinitely harder to ever truly leave the “room.” When we try to walk away, these devices have a way of buzzing and pinging and drawing us back in, essentially locking us in the boxing ring where our digital fight just took place. “You can’t escape it,” Sumerson says. Think of a person who just had an argument online, and then goes to a restaurant for dinner, she told me. “You feel your notifications going off, or you’re curious, ‘Has anyone responded?’ ‘Was there any backlash?’” Are you going to be your most present and peaceful self in that moment?
It’s worth mentioning, also, that you’re not exactly in your right mind during any of this. Anger is a stimulant, and electronics are a stimulant of sorts, too. And if you’re arguing with someone online, you’re probably under the influence of both. Neurologically, when we interact with these extremely powerful computers, they have an effect on our brains that in-person interactions lack, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. And one of the first things that dims during online interactions is your empathy, she says. Patricia Wallace, the author of The Psychology of the Internet, gave me a technical term for this phenomenon: toxic disinhibition. “When people feel more anonymous, more physically distant, and less accountable, they are more likely to express their views in very angry and brittle ways that they would never use in person,” she says.
Is it any wonder, really, that all this might have a negative impact on our health? Alvord tells me that, on a physical level, we know that stress releases the hormone cortisol in our bodies, and that “chronically doing that is really bad for your health.” But it’s also dangerous from a psychology perspective, she says. Online arguments can involve losing control, which might cause a person to feel bad about themself, which may then start a cycle of feeling bad, and eventually chip away at a person’s self-esteem. “Some people get into such a negative cycle that they just start getting really sad or it can create a lot of anxiety,” she adds.
Frank Farley, a psychologist and professor at Temple University, tells me that the research around happiness and wellbeing points to the importance of positivity in a person’s behavior. And, while describing the flip-side of this idea, he said something worth repeating—and perhaps printing and framing: “Chronic negativity in online interactions, like most negativity in our interactions with others, can be an antidote to happiness for many [people].”
So what, then, are some wiser and healthier ways to approach a new year that brings daily temptation to digitally scream at people? I’m not here to flat-out tell you to stop talking about politics online, because there are still healthy and productive ways to do this. They just tend to involve more thought, effort, and restraint.
One option is confine your anger to a private, password-protected space accessible only to close friends whom you trust to keep things confidential. Another is to keep an eye on your language and your approach to online debates. “Name-calling is unproductive. Swearing is unproductive. Character assassination is unproductive,” clinical psychologist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair tells me. “Your goal should not be to annihilate the other person. Your goal should be to deepen your connection.”
In the course of writing this article, it occurred to me that I had definitely spoken online in ways I would never dream of doing at, say, my local grocery store. And so I humbly suggest the Grocery Store Test: During a heated online exchange, ask yourself, “Is this the same way I’d be talking in the middle of a crowded supermarket?”
Then there’s the idea of talking about politics, but giving yourself the time to let your passions cool down. Some of this is simply applying age-old de-escalation strategies to the digital realm: taking a deep breath, going for a walk, sleeping on it. But Steiner-Adair offers a suggestion I hadn’t thought of: writing out your thoughts by hand before posting them. “You can type faster than you can think,” she explained. “And we write more thoughtfully and express ourselves actually better when we hand-write. Because you’re in a quieter dialogue with your feelings.” Does this sound painfully impractical and cumbersome? Of course. That’s the point.
And sometimes it really is just a good idea not to engage with someone at all. One strategy is to take your agitation and channel it into a real-life activity like volunteering, participating in a march, signing a petition, or making a donation to a cause you support. “I say turn that anger into positive action,” Alvord says. “Because passivity makes us feel helpless, and when we’re feeling helpless and hopeless, we get depressed.”
Much of the advice I received was simple being-a-good-person stuff that somehow I (and millions of others) had forgotten or started to ignore at some point in our digital lives. And so I’m here to remind you: “digital citizenship” is a thing, and if you care about real-life citizenship, you should probably care about its online counterpart. “Device intelligence,” like emotional intelligence, is also something worth thinking about. Sumerson sums it up as “having that awareness in your feelings to be able to self-regulate with people...You don’t post everything. You don’t respond to everything. You don’t say everything that’s on your mind.”
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