Most of what you read about online safety is, understandably, about protecting your personal data and not getting scammed. But what about your mental and emotional safety?
People from some atomised minority groups who are geographically distant from their peers—LGBTQIA+, neurodivergent, disabled and other identities that are dispersed and struggle to access in-person community—often find a sense of connection online that they can’t get elsewhere. That can be a gift to isolated people but can also come at a cost.
Finding your people online can be an exhilarating experience. For many people, their first experience of feeling truly heard and understood has come from communities that have grown up from Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook groups and Discord servers. Suddenly, there are people who seem to share your thoughts and feelings about elements of yourself that left you feeling isolated in your offline life. It can be intoxicating.
Online spaces lend themselves to different behaviour than meeting face-to-face. In the early 2000s, as virtual communities and digital forms of communication began to establish themselves, social science researchers documented a phenomenon they called the Online Disinhibition Effect. Relieved of the pressures of social anxiety and social sanctions such as judgement or rejection in person, researchers found people engaging in internet communities interacted more confidently, connected with each other more quickly and often acted out in ways that they might not in person. Six psychological phenomena were associated with creating this experience, including anonymity, invisibility, and asynchronicity.
You might recognise this behaviour from aggressive and inflammatory comments on Facebook or news articles. People will post more extreme comments in online arguments than they are likely to say verbally to a person who is sharing a physical space with you. It’s easy to see why that might be problematic for both the person doing the yelling and the people on the receiving end. What is less obvious is the impact of the more benign forms of disinhibition online.
Finding Your People
If you have spent a significant portion of your life feeling disconnected, isolated, and misunderstood, there is something intoxicating about finding groups of people who share your thoughts, feelings, and experiences online. Internet-based communities that grow in Facebook groups, fandom spaces on Tumblr, Discord servers, or websites tailored to specific interests offer the chance to connect with people like you. They allow relative anonymity and keep your personal identity and feelings separate from your real-life presentation. This can help you to feel safer to express yourself without the risk of your family or your boss finding out information about you that feels like it might threaten your status and acceptance.
The near-constant availability of online communities and friends combined with how anonymity emboldens personal sharing can make relationships much faster. This can feel great, but the sudden intensity and depth of feelings could feel scary. This person you have known for hours or days knows more about your inner world than friends and family who have known you for years. The vulnerability and exposure from that can make you feel excited or unsettled, or both.
In his 2004 article on online disinhibition, John Suler wrote:
In an increasingly intimate e-mail relationship, people may quickly reveal personal information, then later regret their self-disclosures—feeling exposed, vulnerable, or shameful. An excessively rapid, even false intimacy may develop, which later destroys the relationship when one or both people feel overwhelmed, anxious, or disappointed.Suler, J. (2004). The Online Disinhibition Effect. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(3), 321–326.
Nearly 20 years on from that research, online communication is much more widespread and often allows even quicker formation of relationships than through email in the early 00s. Intimacy can develop much faster, and the regret set in sooner. Feeling vulnerable and unsafe could lead to you to behave in uncharacteristic ways that add to your sense of regret. So, what can you do?
The first flush of excitement for relationships with a new community or friends/potential lovers formed online can feel a lot like what polyamorous people refer to as New Relationship Energy. The intoxicating passion of interest in a new person or people online is caused by many of the same neurochemical experiences described by LoveUncommon, which also lists some useful benchmarks to check in with yourself if you are hijacked by these new, exciting feelings to a problematic degree. This includes:
- Losing interest in our passions – this could be other online communities or hobbies and interests in our life offline.
- Spending less than half the time we used to with our other close people including friends, family and partners.
- Stopping doing things we need to function – eating, drinking, going outside, sleeping and basic hygiene.
- Massively changing our life to accommodate the new person in a way that interferes with things like our work or sleep – this can be a particular thing to keep an eye on when new people are in a different timezone.
- Using more of our productive and creative energy than usual on new online connections rather than work, study, hobbies.
- Spending most of our offline time talking about the people we’ve met online.
- Ghosting or deprioritising other people in our lives to make time for the new online people.
- Making life-changing decisions in relation to the new community or people, even though we’ve only known them 3 days/weeks/months.
- Lying to people we’re close to about how much connection we have with the new community or people.
If you are noticing any of these things, it may be time to take a step back. That can feel like a wrench – these new people feel so important – but doing so can preserve the new relationships you’re creating in the longer term. Having some time out, doing things with family/friends/pets, engaging with other hobbies and interests, and focusing on the basics of self-care such as eating, sleeping and whatever form of movement might feel good to you helps re-regulate your body and cope with an influx of neurochemicals that can make you feel quite out of sorts.
Try to remind yourself regularly that there’s no rush. You don’t have to throw yourself in headlong, and you are likely to end up with stronger long-term relationships if you pace yourself. Ask yourself – would I be sharing this with someone I met at a bar? Would I be spending this much time communicating with someone I’d met at work or uni? While online and offline interactions may feel like they’re incomparable, checking in with that can help you keep a sense of proportion with how you invest your time and emotions.
Online spaces offer the opportunity to bring new and exciting connections and can provide so much joy. Understanding some of the ways that you can lose yourself in new online relationships can help you stay connected to these wonderful, diverse, interesting people rather than burning bright and then crashing out.
Have fun out there!