This piece is part of Allure's Drawing Lines series. Read the rest of the series here.
It’s not a secret — we know that the internet can have myriad negative effects on our lives. Between the damage it can do to one's mental health and its erosion of our capacity for face-to-face communication, our time online is quickly making our generation impatient, antisocial, and unhealthy. It can also be addictive, but we can't avoid it: Being online Is absolutely necessary for living, working, and communicating with others.
Conversations about boundaries on the internet range from ludicrous to antithetical — we are drawn to living out part of our lives online because it seems like a limitless space where our minds exist and our bodies do not, where our voices can be heard far and wide as we physically remain in one place. While on the one hand, this can be wonderful, it's harder for us to create the necessary boundaries that make using the internet safe, fulfilling, and healthy.
"It's important to develop boundaries with people online so that we feel our physical and mental well being are protected,” licensed mental health counselor Jennifer Sadler tells Allure. "Also, the way we act online is often how we teach others how to treat us offline. If we don't establish those initial boundaries that give us a chance to demonstrate what we find to be appropriate and acceptable on our end, we can end up with what feels like an open invitation with people who we don't know very well."
Through a few intentional changes in communication, it is possible to create practices that make using the internet feel safer and healthier.
Why are boundaries online necessary?
It's important to create limits in regards to who we follow, what sort of content we consume, and how much time we spend on the internet. First and foremost, they’re necessary for our safety. As dangers like hacking and catfishing loom, it’s imperative to set up barriers to protect our personal data and identity from strangers online, such as increasing our privacy settings or limiting the amount of personal information available on the internet.
Aside from safety, boundaries are necessary for maintaining good mental health. Research has indicated that spending too much time on the internet can be linked to heightened anxiety, and that excessive social media usage could be linked with depression. A look into the science behind the manufacturing of our technology provides some insight into why this might be.
Research has found the blue light on our cell phones and computers can stimulate our brain to create more dopamine, a chemical that is associated with motivation and feelings of happiness. This means that checking our phones more often or spending more time online makes us feel happier, while taking time away from technology can cause withdrawal symptoms and actually make us depressed. What’s more, the notifications we receive on our home screen from apps like Twitter or Instagram can cause us stress or distract us until we check them.
Many have already recognized the ways that excessive internet and social media usage can be unhealthy and are taking steps to combat this issue in their own way. A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found that 42 percent of Facebook users they polled had taken a break from the site in the last year, and more than a quarter of those surveyed had deleted the app from their phones. “Recently, I took a monthlong hiatus from Twitter because I felt like I was using the site so often that it altered my thought patterns,” says Yesenia, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. “Forcing myself to stay off Twitter gave me the space I needed to recenter myself.”
How can we create boundaries online?
First we have to decide what sort of boundaries we are willing and able to create. This process is different for everyone. When approaching social media, for example, you should ask yourself: What am I looking for from this platform? Do I want to make friends, make professional connections, or find entertaining content? These questions can help you decide what sort of boundaries you need to create, and later, how you can create them.
The most common boundary people are looking to create is a limit to how much of our personal information other people can access. Unsurprisingly, the best way to create these sorts of barriers would be through increasing your privacy settings. Keeping your Twitter and Instagram on private, changing your Facebook privacy settings to ensure strangers cannot contact you, and creating separate emails or social media accounts for work versus your social life are all good ways to create these barriers.
"If I didn't have the jobs I have, I would throw my phone into the river and never get on social media again."
But privacy settings can’t help create the emotional boundaries many people find are necessary, like the need we all feel to respond to messages right away or to check a notification as soon as it appears on our screens. Many experts say that removing push notifications from your home screen or deleting social media from your phone for certain periods of time can not only lessen feelings of dependency when it comes to the internet but can also improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and help people reprioritize in-person interactions.
“People often talk to me about a sense of obligation that they feel online,” explains Sadler. “Often, understandably, we feel like because we’re putting ourselves out there to a degree, we’re obligated to accept a friend request on Facebook or return a message to someone that is a stranger to us. It’s important to establish the degree to which we are willing to participate in that early on in our interactions online.”
Of course, creating these sorts of boundaries can be more difficult for some than for others. Many people use social media not just for fun, but for their job — and when your income relies on your ability to brand and commodify yourself online, separating your real life from the one that plays out online becomes a lot more difficult.
“If I didn't have the jobs I have, I would throw my phone into the river and never get on social media again,” says editor and social media consultant Rachel Charlene Lewis. “I don't want to be on there. I'm on there for capitalist reasons. My boundary is in knowing that my full self exists in certain spaces, and that few of those are digital.”
Why are people different online?
I’ll be the first to admit it: I am nothing like my online self. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am catfishing my followers, but I will say that I feel an incessant need to curate my aesthetic and identity online. As a young liberal woman of color, there are certain expectations and standards when it comes to upholding that aesthetic: liberal, but palatably so; black, but not to a point where it becomes intimidating; and outspoken about political issues, but in a way that is also funny and relatable. We subconsciously impose these boundaries on ourselves and on each other, using these criteria to determine who we follow, what content we like and retweet, and how we construct our online selves.
Extensive research demonstrates the ways that people’s real-life personalities often differ from their online personas, according to a 2015 article by The Guardian. Because people have the luxury of being completely satisfied with something before they press send on a photo or witty tweet, people are often more emboldened on the Internet, feeling protected by the barrier of a screen. “People often put the fantasy version of themselves online—the one they want to be or the one they want to sell,” Jacqueline Donelli, a licensed medical health counselor, tells Allure. “On the internet, we are who we want others to think we are.”
Lewis can certainly attest to this sentiment. “I am not at all who I am online,” she says. “It's not like I'm lying when I'm online: I really am very gay; I really do cry over Steven Universe; I really am just now learning how to drive. But me online is me online. Not everyone wants everything about themselves to be public-facing, and I think we need to get more comfortable with that idea.”
To combat feelings of confusion or frustration around their online identity, many people turn to "finstas" or other forms of private social media that are less curated and more tailored for close friends. The “save draft” and “archive” functions on Twitter and Instagram respectively also allow users to express themselves online without the pressures of curation for the public eye.
“I am very open on my public social media, but having a private Twitter made it really easy for me to cross the few existing boundaries that I have,” explains Yesenia. “Knowing that my tweets were only being seen by a select group of people made me feel very comfortable unleashing my innermost private thoughts. I would frequently send out tweets into the void regarding the dire state of my mental health and frustrations I was having with my family. I shared things that I probably wouldn’t even share in person to my closest friends.”
The weight of performing as our online personas can be crushing, and wrestling with the ways in which our online selves and our core selves differ is confusing at best. Ultimately, in seeking to change the ways we approach the internet, we are not only looking to create boundaries with others, but in recognizing dissonance in our online personas, we’re also looking to create boundaries for ourselves.
How can we use the internet safely while keeping our sense of self?
The Internet is as overwhelming as it is unavoidable — which is why creating boundaries is so necessary. It’s also important to practice self-care while online, which can be done in a number of ways. I personally practice self-care by intentionally following accounts that bring me joy rather than stress me out — I love Lala Lopez on Instagram and Dr. Thema on Twitter. Limiting your time online, as well as checking push notifications less often or not allowing notifications to show up on your home screen, can also make social media less stressful, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Computers in Human Behavior.
It’s impractical to judge others —or ourselves — by the masks we put on while online.
Licensed clinical social worker and CEO of Refresh Psycho Therapy Keeley Teemsma emphasizes the importance of limiting our time online. “Have personal time blocked out to check your personal social media,” she suggested. “We should all be able to pick and choose the times we can respond to those emails or DMs or answer those phone calls. As important as it is to have boundaries for our safety, we also want to have a mental boundary.”
It’s those mental boundaries that are the hardest to establish. It may be easy enough to set up privacy settings or limit your time scrolling on social media to an hour a day, but it’s a lot more difficult to stop stressing out about notifications from Twitter or whether your crush saw your latest Instagram story. To establish these mental boundaries, we must be a lot more intentional with the way we approach the Internet, and remember that it’s impractical to judge others — or ourselves — by the masks we put on while online.
"I just wish people would be kinder online," says Lewis. "I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to maintain these massive online personas as if we don't have 500 things happening in our real lives that the Internet doesn't need to know about. I would like to see more kindness, and more boundaries, and more respect of boundaries. If someone doesn't follow you back, or doesn't DM you back immediately, or doesn't like all of your tweets, that's okay. We're all just people."
More on boundaries:
- How to Discuss Sexual Boundaries and Consent, According to a Sex Educator
- How I Taught My Therapist to Understand What I Need From Them
- Why Finstas Are a Safe Sanctuary on Social Media
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Originally Appeared on Allure