In our modern world using social media to connect is standard practice. Last month we commemorated “Safer Internet Day” where my colleague and I attended a Twitter event with four panelists leading discussions on the pros and cons of the online world. The topic of cyber-bullying and abuse were on the forefront of the discussion on safe internet use, and on this note Twitter panelist and Irish Times contributor Louise Bruton raised a point worth delving into. She pointed out the ease with which we reflexively and negatively respond to online comments is not how we would ever behave in real life, at least most of us wouldn’t. Take for instance Cardi B’s deletion of her instagram account over the adverse responses she got over her recent grammy win. Instagram, a medium that is often used by celebrities and influencers to connect with their fans can quickly turn into a vortex of vitriol and abuse. So why is it that we shun civility with such ease when we engage the inter-world ? On the one hand, the lack of accountability and anonymity can embolden rash ill thought through replies but it’s more than that. Research into connectedness and how humans connect offers some interesting insights into this inter-mad fad of reflexive aggression. Simply put we didn’t evolve to connect over a screen and so we don’t. Not easily anyway. So let’s explore the deeper ways we do connect and what we might wish to consider in making our moments online more worthy of our time.
Connection and the role of nonverbal behaviour
Through nonverbal behaviour we give our interlocutor an abundance of information whether or or not we intend to, we integrate the facial expressions and body language of the person we are conversing with into the verbal messages they share. However, none of this occurs in an online text exchange or tweet. We infer tone, mood, state of mind of the other person based purely on imagination, and our imagination when dealing with strangers or those we are inclined to feel combative towards often leads us to colour their views in the negative. What the nonverbals offer is subtle cues that allow us to discern intent. From the time we are infants we learn to interpret and respond to nonverbal cues; from the scent of our primary caregiver, to how tone of voice indicates mood, to variations in facial expressions which lets the infant know that others are playful, sad, worried, stern etc. For example, check out this beautiful baby’s reaction to not getting smiles from Mom https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0 the immediate distress is both adorable and heartbreaking. From infancy we start to develop expertise in nonverbal cues culminating in the ability to get our point across without words when we don’t even share a language, for example see this fascinating exchange between two dancers asked to choreograph a dance without the ability to speak the same language https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O19HV8Yspr0 it’s quite remarkable isn’t it?
It’s precisely the nonverbals which allow a more profound sense of connection to develop, something which our online world is often missing.
Connection and Mental Health
Research into the role of connection and wellbeing shows that a sense of connectedness develops through gradual experiences which includes a sense of belonging in our families, our friends and communities. However when a person is unable to successfully integrate socially feelings of isolation, loneliness and frustration are common. When individuals feel socially rejected, undesirable or ignored a slew of alarms go off in the mind that often triggers negative and hostile impulses.
If then the internet is often an outlet for people who wish to vent their frustrated & hostile feelings, it seems like a good strategy to vet one’s online engagements. After all, the people we converse with, argue / debate with online are rarely people we know in real life, and even more rare, people who genuinely care about us. Letting the negativity of an impersonal world affect one’s mental state hardly seems like time well spent. Yet there are amazingly uplifting and useful things to do/see/learn online but one has to be judicious about how they navigate the inter-world. So what’s your favourite uplifting past-time online? Myself, I’m a massive fan of Tom Bilyeu’s YouTube show: Impact Theory where he interviews guests from all walks of life who share their stories of perseverance, setbacks, lessons learned and triumphs. It’s easy to get vortexed into a virtual orbit of negativity but it’s just as easy to delve into spaces where people are doing remarkable and positive things and allow their online worlds to brighten our day. It’s good every now and then to pause, reflect and ask, is this how I really want to connect ?
By Silvia Ribeiro