For most of us, social media is the main means of communicating with friends and family. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that eight in ten Americans have a Facebook profile and, of these users, 32 percent have an Instagram account and 24 percent have a Twitter account.
These numbers show no sign of slowing down; in fact, they indicate a five percent growth from the previous year. We’re now more likely to hear news about our friends’ and families’ lives online than we are in-person.
Minding our virtual relationships and crafting our online personas and reputation is a relatively new way to interact with others we know and those we don’t. What is considered to be socially appropriate behavior for our online relationships really is no different than it is for our real life ones.
Paying attention to the ways in which we interact online, what we share, and the quality of our virtual relationships is important, as they have a real impact on our lives and mental health.
Sharing the ups and downs of our lives with close friends and family is the glue that binds our relationships and what makes them strong. It is equally important to navigate our online relationships with the same level of care with which we navigate our real life relationships—perhaps to an even greater level, as social media lacks a personal connection. Says Paul Booth, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago: “Our interactions on social media tend to be weak ties—that is we don’t feel personally connected to the people on the other end of our communication as we do when face-to-face.”
This is important to keep in mind when we have the drive to post intimate or sensitive information about ourselves or lives. In the end, our relationships are meant to make us feel good and cultivating healthy relationships both in real life and online are important.
Below are some tips for navigating online posting and communication.
Don’t post when you’re feeling emotional
At one time or another, we have all said and done things in anger that we later regretted and wished we could take back. These things are harder to take back when they are published online. When we’re in the heat of the moment, going rogue on social media usually isn’t the best idea. We’ve all seen conflicts play out on social media and the result is rarely a resolution. Instead, it is hurtful and insulting comments and rhetoric that ultimately leaves one feeling hurt, defensive and misunderstood.
Instead of quickly responding to a friend’s comment you take issue with, consciously take a break from social media in order to give yourself the proper time and space to process your feelings and collect your thoughts before posting a response.
Use private messaging to resolve conflicts
If you feel you need to speak up or respond to a friend’s post you take offense to, engage in a phone call or in-person conversation before taking your grievance public.
Directly sorting out conflicts is the best approach. Reducing your discussion to just those involved in the original conflict reduces the chances of pulling others into the mix which can make matter worse.
Prepare yourself for negative responses
Before engaging in a public discourse, ask yourself: “Am I prepared to receive a barrage of negative responses?” If you think negative feedback and comments will make you feel upset or angry, hold off on posting. Instead, consider calling or texting a friend to talk through your feelings.
Protect your privacy
It’s important to keep in mind that our social networks—and the comments that we make on them—are easier to find than ever.
It’s become a common practice for employers or universities to search a prospective applicant’s or student’s social media profiles and, in these cases, it’s not just our relationships that suffer from oversharing but our opportunities, too. Make it a habit to only share private and sensitive information face-to-face or by phone.
Be aware of social media overload and Internet addiction
Compulsive Internet use is defined by excessive Internet use resulting in difficulty maintaining daily responsibilities or normal daily function. Although this is not an officially recognized disorder, internet overuse and its effects on our emotional well-being is being widely researched.
Some of the symptoms associated with compulsive Internet use include poor concentration, emotional detachment and shutdown, and withdrawal symptoms similar to that of substance use withdrawal have been reported. Being aware of the potentially negative consequences of too much time spent online is an important part of cultivating a healthy balance between our online relationships and real life ones.
Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, whose practice focuses on psychological issues affecting individuals, couples and families. She is affiliated with Bryn Mawr Hospital and Lankenau Medical Center.