In search of kindness, empathy & compassion in the Digital World
Updated: Mar 3, 2020
This article was originally published on Medium, under the title "5 Things We Can Each Do To Make Social Media And The Internet A Kinder And More Tolerant Place." I am very thankful to Yitzi Weiner of Authority Magazine for conducting this interview.
Our lives play out on social media in a way that they don’t in the ‘real’ offline world — our comments and posts have an immediate and widespread reach and impact, and so receiving an online critique can hurt all the more because a huge audience of people gets to see it immediately. It’s a little like being teased or bullied in the playground with the whole school watching, except that now you can potentially live through that very same kind of experience many times over in a single day (depending on how engaged you are online). So, all the feelings you would feel during that event in the schoolyard — embarrassment, shame, anger, vengefulness, regret — will be multiplied if this happens to you with frequency in the online world, and if you don’t have a support system to help you work through those feelings.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Thank you for inviting me and thank you to everyone who is dedicating their time and attention to our interview.
As a Third Culture Kid, I have lived across 3 different continents and have been surrounded by diversity my whole life. I have always been interested in the things that make people different as well as those that make them similar, and so I was drawn to the fields of psychology, theology, anthropology and art history from a very young age. I knew I wanted to be a therapist since I was in high school, and so everything I have done since then has led me to the place where I am right now.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When you work with people as closely as I do, there is never a shortage of interesting stories! I have been so lucky to have worked with some incredible individuals, both clients and colleagues; however, the tiniest of those humans, i.e. the kids I have worked with in therapeutic and educational settings, have been the most enlightening and inspirational. The most interesting (and profound) experience I have had many times over is working with a small child for a period of time and being able to see — through their behavior, verbalization, and play — how their brain changes, grows and becomes increasingly complex. It’s an incredible thing to witness. Suddenly, they become capable of stringing a bunch of sentences together to tell you exactly how they feel and, through their play, you see them suddenly being able to build increasingly complex structures out of random objects you have lying around, accompanied by increasingly elaborate stories about the characters involved.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I struggled to set very clear boundaries with children when I first started working with them as an assistant teacher and facilitator because I just hated saying “no” to them. I had a really hard time setting boundaries around food in particular, so the kids loved me because I was the person who would let them eat as many cookies as they wanted! One day, a very helpful colleague stepped in and shared “the secret of 2” with me: you always give children two options only (you can eat 2 cookies or 3 baby carrots). Quite the revelation! This really helped to set boundaries, but also made the kids feel empowered because they felt as though they were the ones making the decision. I have a huge amount of compassion for parents when it comes to rule-setting because this was definitely a hard lesson for me to learn.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, I am working on 2 very different projects, both very unique and exciting. One is an art and mental wellness program that I created for the purpose of helping people carve out time for self-care in this crazy busy city of New York. It combines the elements of mindfulness, hypnotherapy and positive psychology practices, and uses the artwork in one of the most beautiful museums in the City to create an immersive wellness experience. The other is a parenting workshop that I co-created with a friend and colleague who is a mindfulness teacher, with the aim of 1) helping parents understand the impact technology use has on them and their children, and 2) helping them develop best practices for digital wellness based on their own child’s character and temperament.
Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?
I have been pretty lucky when it comes to that because it hasn’t happened to me. Yet! It feels like it’s just a matter of time, with cyber-bullying and online shaming being so prevalent in our culture nowadays. I have unfortunately witnessed some really harsh examples of that kind of behavior though, and have often wondered what it is that makes people give themselves the permission to behave in such ways.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
Even though I have witnessed some really unpleasant examples of inappropriate and hurtful exchanges online, I have also frequently witnessed the incredible support and empathy people pour out to each other online. For example, I am a member of several parenting groups on Facebook and I have seen some beautiful examples of just how loving, supportive and encouraging people can be with each other in those groups. It’s important to remember that good people exist out there in the virtual world too, just as they do in the real world.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
No, I never have actually. I have been very conscious of that since the very first time I started using social media, and being a Third Culture Kid has played a huge role in that. I have a very diverse group of both online and offline friends, and whenever I have felt the impulse to make a comment about a political/social topic, for example, I would always run a few questions through my mind first. Questions like, how would some of my friends receive this information, would anyone be hurt or offended, and finally, does the world really need me to post this comment right now? I would also always ask myself what personal need am I trying to satisfy by posting this, and can I satisfy that need it in some other way. I think that, in general, using social media responsibly means doing quite a bit of introspection.
Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?
In my case, this ‘evolution’ actually happens before I ever post anything. It starts with my reaction to a comment or post I see, after which I always pause to think about this reaction and try to figure out what that’s about for me. If I find that me liking, re-posting or commenting on something isn’t going to truly serve me or anyone else in a positive or constructive way, I won’t do it. I try to keep things simple that way because what I also find is that this actually helps to keep me from spending too much time on social media.
When one reads the comments on YouTube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?
Our lives play out on social media in a way that they don’t in the ‘real’ offline world — our comments and posts have an immediate and widespread reach and impact, and so receiving an online critique can hurt all the more because a huge audience of people gets to see it immediately. It’s a little like being teased or bullied in the playground with the whole school watching, except that now you can potentially live through that very same kind of experience many times over in a single day (depending on how engaged you are online). So, all the feelings you would feel during that event in the schoolyard — embarrassment, shame, anger, vengefulness, regret — will be multiplied if this happens to you with frequency in the online world, and if you don’t have a support system to help you work through those feelings. Another thing to keep in mind is that, since the nature of our social media accounts is such that they are always “on,” we can’t really hide away from what happens on them in the way we used to be able to hide from those hurtful encounters. You used to be able to lock yourself up in your room and wait for the storm to pass — the problem now is that the storm is inside your room. It’s right there in your pocket.
Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
It’s an interesting question — if I were a researcher, that would certainly be one of the questions I would want to explore. I can’t say for sure, but I would imagine that they are equally bad although in slightly different ways. A real altercation has greater potential to trigger fear and the fight-or-flight response, with the person being right there in front of us — their tone, posture, and facial expressions would all induce fear-based emotions in us. An online attack is a bit different. While intense, I think it is more likely to activate a different group of emotions, ones grouped not so much around fear but rather sadness — for example, embarrassment and shame. Those can potentially make us feel worse in the long run because the nature of sadness-based emotions is such that they can have more long-lasting effects such as ruminative thinking, self-blame, a loss of self-worth and serious self-doubt.
What long-term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
The impact of that kind of experience can be incredibly damaging, especially if that person doesn’t talk to anyone about these emotions and doesn’t find a way to process them. Like I mentioned before, these emotions can have long-lasting effects, and the patterns of negative and unhelpful thinking that result from shame can lead to really serious mental health issues, even resulting in suicidal thinking or planning. Brené Brown is currently the foremost researcher on this topic, and she has said that: “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change,” but also that: “If we share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.”
Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?
This is one of the most important questions our global community needs to ask if we are ever going to improve online behavior.
The most fundamental reason lies behind the whole purpose of posting on social media — we put stuff out there because we want it to be seen, we want to connect, we want to express ourselves, to make a statement, to make our opinion known. Also, we typically want to get across that *this* is the best way or the right way of being, doing, or thinking. Melvin Kranzberg notably said: “Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.” The same is true of how we use that technology, via the content we post — you’ll rarely see people posting random, mediocre-quality content that they don’t want anyone to notice or comment on — no, we want visibility, we want reactions.
This is where our online behavior has the potential to become problematic because some individuals see online platforms as the realm of ‘anything goes,’ in which they can respond to whatever content people put on there, and in any way they like. The more the content stands out or is atypical in any way, the more justified they feel and the more they feel the content is ‘asking for it.’
For some, the ‘safety’ of hiding behind the device definitely plays a huge role in how far they allow themselves to go. We often see that people who are not particularly outspoken and perhaps feel that they have never been very good at expressing and asserting themselves, suddenly feel empowered to say exactly what they think online. When this comes from a place of empowerment and a desire for self-improvement it is a wonderful thing to see, but if it comes from anger and resentment it can potentially have fatal outcomes (as we often see with mass-shooters).
The final thing I want to point out is that we know from Human Needs Psychology that we all have the same fundamental needs and we spend our whole lives trying to fulfill them. These are certainty, variety, connection, significance, growth, and contribution. We have developed all sorts of different ways (some good and some bad) to fulfill them, and social media provides another arena in which this plays out. Someone might try to satisfy their need for significance by, for example, sharing lots of helpful information on a parenting website, whereas someone else will try to satisfy the same need by sharing hurtful comments and getting support from like-minded individuals. Both people will feel significant in the end, but the roads that lead them there would have been very different.
If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?
My suggestion would be to keep the following questions and tips in mind:
#Is there a need you are trying to satisfy by using your social media in the way that you do — what is it, and what are other ways to do so, that is healthier both for yourself and for others?
#Check the emotion(s) you feel as you use social media — can you pause for a bit before leaving that comment, identify the emotion and then see if the emotion lasts and if you still want to leave that same comment in 15 or 20 minutes?
#Set the intention to dedicate 5–10min of your social media use every day (or however often you use it) to expressing kindness, gratitude or compassion to at least 2 people on your feed(s). Bonus: Come up with 1 positive or helpful thought you could share via your social media today.
#Always be sure to report disturbing and/or inappropriate content — don’t wait for others to do it.
#Seek out people who use their social media in ways that are inspirational, uplifting, creative, funny, helpful, educational and supportive, and show them your support. Bonus: Find ways to emulate that same kind of online behavior.
Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?
This has been a hot debate recently, with some arguing that the rights of free speech indeed do not apply to online platforms in the same way as they do to other real-world platforms. It’s very hard to say — sometimes it seems to be the kind of debate best-suited for lawyers and philosophers. Social media platforms are the public forums of today, and so the idea of censorship there does go against the concept of freedom of expression. In the United States, in particular, suggesting censorship of speech in any form and on any platform is pretty much the most unpopular (and riskiest) thing to do. Personally, I believe that there absolutely needs to be censorship of inappropriate content of the violence-inciting, pornographic and sexually-violent kind — I have reported several such accounts on Twitter myself — but when it comes to people expressing political, religious and similar views, I’m not sure how we can go about controlling that without stepping over people’s rights. Given that these are private enterprises as you mentioned, it is perhaps ultimately down to the people running them to make those decisions, but it is certainly down to all of us to make an effort to behave as responsible digital citizens while using these platforms.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
I would set up a time-block for leaving comments on people’s posts — once you click/tap to leave a comment you are notified that you have about 90 seconds (or so) to stop, take a pause, and if you still feel strongly about sharing your thoughts then you can go ahead. I think that alone would make the rate of hurtful comments seriously drop!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have quite a few, but: “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they are yours,” by Richard Bach is right on top. I first read this quote when I was about 15 and it was one of those concepts that I sensed had profound meaning, but I didn’t have enough life experience yet to truly comprehend it. As I grew older, I started noticing this habit in myself and others, of defending our inability to do certain things, for example, not being able to talk to strangers. I now see that quote as being one of my first introductions into the field of Positive Psychology, because, while it is a bit of a scolding statement it also tells us that we ourselves have a huge amount of power, which is what the research in this field of psychology has repeatedly shown.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
How about if I pretend you asked me who I would invite to my ideal dinner party instead? :-) I couldn’t pick just one individual! One of the most amazing things about technology and social media is that we have access to so many incredible and accomplished individuals from all these industries globally. Here goes: Esther Perel, Megan Rapinoe, Michelle Obama, Lady Gaga, Ron Howard, Jack Ma, The Wachowski brothers, and Dan Brown. I know, that’s one long list — and this is the edited version. But now I really want to make it happen!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I try to use social media as mindfully and efficiently as possible — so, for the most part, I use it for work as a way of raising awareness on some of the issues I am most interested in and passionate about. On Twitter, I am at @PsycoachTP, Facebook @teodorapsychologistandparentingcoach and LinkedIn /teodorapavkovic. For any questions, please get in touch with me via firstname.lastname@example.org — I’d love to hear from you!