Why You Need a CyberBuddy
Finding safety online involves overcoming isolation.
Posted October 4, 2017
When we send elementary-age kids on field trips, we assign them a “buddy.” We tell kids to stay with their buddy all day. We tell them to not even go to the bathroom without their buddy, mostly because we are afraid the child might be snatched from the bathroom, by a sexual offender, even though we know (and ignore) the fact that over 90 percent of sexual abuse happens at home.
But, we send kids online alone.
While the Internet and modern technology such as smartphones and social media have overcome tremendous social barriers and led to the creation of countless online communities of like-minded people, it can also be incredibly isolating. When we foray out into the wilds of the Internet, pursuing our unique interests, we can quickly end up in far corners of the electronic world, in “neighborhoods” unknown to our family, friends, and loved ones. We might be exploring issues related to our personal interests in all sorts of things, ranging from politics to sex, to guns, to comic books. As we follow the threads of these connections, we can go down rabbit holes where other people share our interests but have their own personal demons of obsession, anger and a desire to lash out.
When anyone, whether child or adult, finds themselves under attack online, we feel terribly alone. Many of us now have the experience of watching a mild disagreement or misunderstanding online, spiral into a storm of fury and rage. Before we know it, we are receiving death threats, raging emails, and wild accusations. The typical response is to initially try to apologize for the misunderstanding, try to reason or rationalize our way through what seems to be a simple miscommunication. But, we often find that we’ve inadvertently poked a hornet’s nest, and an army of stinging attacks comes boiling out.
Online, people don’t seem driven to follow the same rules of polite engagement, de-escalation, or conflict avoidance that we employ in physical or verbal interactions. Behind that seeming anonymity and distance online, there’s lots of room for people to escalate quickly to behaviors they wouldn’t consider, with a person they were face to face with. The online world favors, reinforces, and incentivizes (through attention, likes and response) strong, vitriolic, and extremist reactions and posts.
It is the isolation that best predicts catastrophic consequences, such as suicide, violence or the “extremification” of people into engaging in public acts of devastation, inspired by their online interactions. It is when teens are alone, facing an onslaught of jeering, threatening, verbal assaults and slanders, that they may consider suicide. It’s when young men are online, increasingly isolated from their family and friends in the physical world, that these individuals can follow extremist ideals into acts that harm and inspire terror.
Note: I don’t typically use the term “In Real Life,” for the simple reason that I believe that we must accept the world of online interactions as just as “real” as our face to face ones. When we perceive those online experiences as less real, or less substantial or valid, we increase the resistance in people to seek help for them. It’s easy to end up with the thoughts that “I shouldn’t be this bothered by these conflicts or threats, it’s ‘just’ online and not real,” or “I can’t really get help for this, because people will think I’m ridiculous for needing help with people sending me angry messages.”
As a clinician, a citizen of the online world, and as a father, I’ve been watching this frightening trend grow. There were three examples I witnessed and experienced, which have informed my thinking:
In 2016, the recent remake of Ghostbusters was released. African American actress Leslie Jones was horrifically savaged and attacked by racist, misogynist trolls online, who pursued her aggressively on Twitter and social media. Leslie Jones fought back. And, in a fascinating interview on NPR, people discussed the ways that other people, normal citizens of the online world, stepped up to defend Jones, saying that it simply wasn’t right, what people were doing.
I’m Facebook friends with teenage family members, and I once noticed an interesting event, where one posted a comment that one of her friends misunderstand, and overreacted to in an attacking manner. But, another adult, a mutual friend, noticed the exchange and stepped in quickly with a comment that shut down the escalating exchange and made clear that attacks and threats weren’t tolerated.
Earlier this year, I experienced social media attacks related to an interview I conducted of Laci Green, Youtube star sex educator. Laci is questioning and challenging some of the politics and social values she’s supported and is now being excluded, attacked, and isolated by people who were once her allies. When I conducted an interview of Laci about the experience, for my #NoMoreSexShame video series, I was attacked for giving her a platform, and immediately labeled a racist, transphobic, and sexist; merely for interviewing her. It was only because of the many friends who reached out to me, sharing their own experiences of such attacks, and offering emotional support, that I weathered that frightening flurry of hatred and accusations.
So, I now recommend that patients, children, and basically everyone, needs a “CyberBuddy.” What’s a CyberBuddy? It’s a person who you can reach out to when you’re afraid or feeling online alone. It’s a person who is on the same media platforms as you, who shares some of your values and beliefs. Who can stand up for you, or with you, and make sure you’re not alone and isolated. It’s a person who can offer you advice on how to respond, how to manage, how to step away safely. A CyberBuddy is a person who can complain with you and for you, to the site administrators or the media monitors, who enforce policies on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a person who can tell you when it’s time to contact authorities, whether it’s law enforcement or school officials. A CyberBuddy is a person who helps you when you feel alone and under attack.
For kids, I tell them and the parents that often, parents don’t make good CyberBuddies for their kids, just because it can feel too invasive of the teen’s privacy. But, I do tell parents that their best way to protect their child from online problems is NOT to monitor or check on them, but to create an ongoing, open-door conversation around the online world so that when the kid experiences problems, they can ask their parent for help.
A grown-up CyberBuddy is important too. Look at your online relationships and friends. Who are the people you interact with, across various platforms? Who seems level-headed, kind, and share your values? Across own history of online conflicts, who were the people who helped? Would they be interested in developing an informal “mutual protection” relationship? Do you feel comfortable with them knowing some things about you, that you like to keep private from people in your physical life? This last is important, because it’s often those secrets, and those private interests, that keep us silent and alone.
There is increasing dialogue and attention towards making the online world a safer place. Twitter and Facebook are reforming their policies and approaches to harassment, bullying, threats, and abuse. The risks and dangers in the “dark web,” that secret, encrypted electronic underbelly world, are gaining increased attention. All of these changes are important. But, we have to do our part, to protect ourselves. One of the first and most important steps we can make is to decrease the chances that we, and the people we care about, will be alone and hurting in the online world. When we start talking about these problems, these pains, and these challenges, and we start identifying the need to be strong together, we open doors that can prevent future tragedies.