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When the Internet Turns Ugly

Expert Source: Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, licensed professional counselor, Teen Angst blogger for Psychology Today, and author of Staying Cool . . . When You’re Steaming Mad.

The Internet is a mixed blessing. It can connect you with people and resources that make your life better, but it also can make you angry, anxious, and demoralized, particularly when you run into highly charged or hostile online exchanges.

On social media, in chat rooms, and in streams of comments, “conversations” often escalate from lively debates to personal attacks or volatile flame wars. Trolls lurk, ready to strike — with or without provocation.

The ease and anonymity of online forums can suck you in and set off a whole range of disturbing emotions and puzzling anxieties. You’re surprised or offended by a comment and wonder if you should respond. You hesitate because you fear you’ll be demolished by the crowd. You put a heated reply out there anyway, instantly feeling foolish, vulnerable, or irrationally furious.

Whether you’re posting on Facebook, tweeting, or sharing your opinion of a film, licensed professional counselor Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, offers a few simple strategies that can help you handle the stress of online drama.

Challenges to Overcome

  • Taking it personally. When someone posts a rant that offends your belief system, “you may immediately feel the need to defend yourself,” says Lohmann — even if the post has nothing to do with you. This traps you in a stressful “us-versus-them” frame of mind. “It’s easy to take an online attack as a judgment on your character, when, of course, it isn’t anything of the kind if the person attacking doesn’t know you.”
  • Intimidation. You may feel so much anxiety in the face of a cyber-bully’s powerful arguments that you’re certain he or she will shred even your most articulate response. This fear can be especially toxic for those with low self-esteem. “It can spark feelings of self-doubt and even worthlessness.”
  • Complicity. When you agree with someone else’s aggressive posts, the initial surge of validation or vindication can devolve to mean-spirited smugness, a sense of complicity, or even mob-mind.
  • Loss of perspective. It’s easy to mistake intense online subcultures and hostile opinions as representative of the majority view — or of “the truth” itself. This can make you feel you’re the only one who holds a countervailing perspective. “The Internet is wonderful, but it’s full of statements that need to be questioned,” says Lohmann. “It’s not the perfect filter to use in figuring out reality.” (For more on this, see “Turf Wars” .)
  • Spiraling anger. The intense anger that an online argument sometimes incites can keep you stuck in battle mode, says Lohmann. You may have no intention of becoming a flamer or a troll, but your anger can prompt you to respond defensively, sucking you even deeper into an ever-escalating argument.
  • Bystander stress. “Even if you don’t directly take part in a flame war or a similar online attack,” says Lohmann, “you can experience stress that resembles what a bystander feels when he or she witnesses an attack on the street.”
  • “Real-world” fallout. If you argue online with friends or colleagues, you may worry about how this will affect your real-world relationships. Also, since friends, colleagues, and employers could conceivably view your embattled exchanges, Lohmann says, “there is a real potential embarrassment factor that adds to the stress of coming under attack.”

Strategies for Success

  • Understand what’s being attacked. In many cases, “the person going after you is attacking what they’re reading, not you personally,” Lohmann says. “The battle is entirely about words.”
  • Be aware of your insecurities. “Maybe you’ve struggled your whole life with feelings of not being smart enough,” says Lohmann. “When a cyberbully calls you stupid, you’re likely to overreact.” Being conscious that a sore spot has been touched can be a signal that you need to disengage.
  • Know your physical triggers. “We need to be aware of our physical cues when we’re getting sucked in by anxiety or anger online,” says Lohmann. “Your heart rate might go up, you might feel flushed, your breathing might start to change. Some people get muscle tension. Being in tune with these cues early on can help you disengage before you hit the full level of a negative emotion.”
  • Talk it over, safely. If you’re upset about an online exchange, get another perspective, Lohmann suggests. Call a friend and vent a little, or ask him or her whether something that was said to you — or something you said — seems appropriate.
  • Edit your response. If you’ve written an angry comment, take a few moments to tone it down before posting. When you make the effort to cut all abusive terms (“moron”) and delete personal attacks, you may also broaden your own perspective.
  • Be positive. “Increase the peace” in a thread — and lower your own stress level — by being positive in your exchanges. Thank people for sharing their perspectives (even if you disagree with them). Compliment them on their passion and conviction. Refuse to take up the trolls’ gambit of hooking you into a nasty frame of mind.
  • Take advantage of tech features. If it’s too hard to avoid social-media battles, Lohmann advises using available options to hide, unfollow, or unfriend people whose comments tend to trigger feelings of stress or anxiety. You can also adjust privacy settings to disable comments.
  • Walk away. “One of the best methods for restoring your own peace of mind in the middle of online drama is [to hit] the power button on your device,” says Lohmann. “Not every post needs to be responded to.”

This article originally appeared as “When the Internet Turns Ugly” in the October 2015 issue of Experience Life.

Illustration by: Neil Webb

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