When I see anxiety and stress building in my students, I routinely ask them to disconnect from the Internet and the world of social media. As with other middle schools around the globe, the online environment has not shown itself to be a very positive place for a young person to interact. As teenagers, many are ill equipped to deal with the negativity and cruel trolling that is commonplace. By the end of May, I decided it was time I followed my own advice.
My online spaces of contact developed into depressing corners of my life. My wife would comment on my sour mood after coming out of a research session preparing for a piece, a particular state that would linger for a few hours following. It was clear that my time spent online was not doing wholesome things for my personal life or mental well-being.
This spiral started when I began following and writing about the Altright. This subgroup of trolls has quickly developed a reputation as some of the worst miscreants on the Internet, and it seemed there was no decency they were not willing to dismiss. As I have a small footprint online, I have only garnered sporadic trolling from these activists for some of the things I have said about their movement, but the barrage of attacks made on some have resulted in them leaving Twitter altogether.
Granted, I went looking for these people. Their comments and ideas would come up in my stream because I was actively searching for them. Nor am I some feeble newcomer to the angry, bitter realms of radical politics; I spent a sizable portion of my adult life arguing fervently over the matters of the day. Nonetheless, the sheer dreadfulness of this new breed of Internet comments shocked me, and only increased my depression and sorrow.
Even places like Facebook, a social media platform generally made up of people I know personally and not trolling sock-puppets, was increasingly a place of frustration, Instagram is a place of frustration as well, with Instagram follower count which is something that you see very often in teenagers, it can take over their heads. In the last two months, the tragedy of Orlando and the EU Referendum in Britain occurred. In both cases, I watched as friends and comrades expressed their sadness, frustration, confusion or elation as these events unfolded. In the case of Orlando, many simply wanted to frame the tragedy in political terms that were beneficial to their ideology and could be used as a bludgeoning tool against those in opposition. Mind you, these are friends, family and co-workers, so I was unwilling to question their framing of this horrendous loss of death, but social media looked to be a place where they could simplify the situation to meet the demands of their political persuasion. Liked-minded individuals would reinforce their interpretation; those who disagreed likely stayed away and shook their heads. I saw some even argue that the media was making a bigger deal out of the attack than was warranted, seeing that group X experienced tragedy Y elsewhere in land Z. I found it terribly sad that many felt the need to “own” the Orlando tragedy rather than mourn those murdered that day and have a discussion about the various causes for their deaths. Perhaps it was simply too soon for such a hyper-charged conversation to occur; yet social media wasn’t making a solution any more likely.
I have loved the United Kingdom since my early teens, and was fortunate enough to live and study there in my 20s: first, as an exchange student at the University of Cambridge in 2003 and then at the University of Edinburgh as a graduate student. I had a keen interest in international politics and focused my studies on global integration and the European Union. Many of my fellow classmates work, in some capacity, within the EU. Their entire lives and careers had been built on playing a part in this larger European economic and political project, and to our surprise, the people of Britain narrowly voted to leave said institution. Unsurprisingly, they were angry at their country’s course of action, with some lashing out at the “leave” voters. I watched as more than one individual who should know better, framed those in favor of leaving the EU as bigoted, idiotic monsters that wanted to create a fascist dictatorship and oppress people of color. Surely, those individuals exist, but to paint 52% of their countrymen in such a way seemed drab and unconcerned with the reasons many wanted to part from the EU.
Alan Johnson, a comrade of mine who edits the excellent Fathom Journal, was a prominent left-wing activist in favor of leaving the EU. In the aftermath of the vote, the level of hate he received via his Facebook page was staggering. He went about un-friending slews of individuals that had been, up to that point, friends and allies.
Actual face-to-face conversations about these topics never devolved into the ad hominine I witnessed online. Even after a few glasses of wine, a willingness to see the other side’s points of validity was practiced. Some of these people were formally educated while others had not finished high school; there wasn’t a difference in the civility employed by any one class of individual. However, the conversation and experience looked very different than that interactions I was witnessing on social media.
In contrast with the negative and depressing environment I had cultivated on social-media, my personal life has been quite rewarding and pleasant. I am off for a month and enjoying it in beautiful Sonoma County with my daughter and wife. We spend our days swimming, hiking to the beach and visiting friends and family. I found the joys of Fallout 4 and the deep cuts from Bella Lugosi. There is stability in my work life and enough money to support a family; I have few things to complain about in my personal life. Spending less time on social media seemed a rather obvious solution to my problems.
I would never give up these platforms altogether. Connecting with friends and allies (and even opponents) has produced worthwhile interactions that exist thanks to these social media websites. I also understand that simply because things are going well in my life doesn’t mean that that the world’s problems do not exist. For some, social media may be the only place they can lash out at a society that has not addressed their concerns and problems. I will let those individuals decide how to best present their ideas to the larger world and affect change. However, finding a way to interact with these issues without it taking a toll on my personal life is where I need to put consideration.
(Image: Beautiful San Francisco at mid-day)