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  • Writer's pictureMeg

Digital Ambivalence

I regularly recommend that clients who are feeling socially isolated seek support on the internet. The world we live in is so digitally connected that it just makes sense. Hell, I’m a teletherapist whose closest friends live across the country. I practically live on zoom. And many of the people I’ve been closest to in my life have been people I met online. So I recommend that people seek support from others going through the same things they are and that often means going online.

That being said, I have more than a little ambivalence about that recommendation and I rarely make that recommendation to teenagers. There are lots of ways to fall down internet rabbit holes and lots of ways it can fuck you up. Teens are particularly vulnerable. Every time I suggest a client go to the internet I say a little prayer that they find a good corner not a bad one.

When I was 17 I found a very dysfunctional little corner. It was more or less run by an adult (I think he was 50) but most of the people on the message boards were teens and young adults. We were there for each other, we loved each other, we tried to help each other, but we were kids. We felt responsible for each other and felt it keenly when other people hurt. Before I was 18 I had called the police in three different countries to try to get help for people who were attempting suicide. That wasn’t my responsibility but I felt like it was.

The message board technology we used is extremely outdated but the way we were a collection of hurting people hurting each other and ourselves is still very present. I’ve had many many clients fall prey to the “support” of pro-eating disorder instagrams and I’ve had clients who exchange pictures of their self harm in progress to others on snap chat. The immediacy and ubiquity of social media and the way images are incorporated seamlessly into communication makes the likelihood of triggering each other exponentially higher.

On the message board we competed to be the most fucked up. It wasn’t conscious and it was completely understandable (especially given that the adult on the message board used to encourage it) but it was very damaging. We triggered each other constantly. No matter how many trigger warnings you put on a post (and yes, we were using trigger warnings before trigger warnings were a topic of debate), on a mostly unmoderated support forum there was a lot of very detailed content. It was rough.

It’s natural for groups of teens (and sometimes adults) to compete with each other to be the sickest one. Most don’t realize they are doing it, but it’s a very common phenomenon. Pro eating disorder accounts across social media encourage the competition, but even when it is less explicit it happens. We see how other people who hurt get support and we think the best way for us to get support is to be even more clear and obvious about our hurt. So things escalate. That is toxic on the internet where there is unlimited access to people who are hurting very badly.

The knowledge of that type of interaction makes me wary of advising teens to seek out online support. I was too young to know what I was doing and what the risks were. Teens today are more online than I could have ever imagined (I was 13 when AOL became a thing) so perhaps I’m trying to close the barn door after all the horses have already escaped. My role now should be to help them stay safe on the internet as they know it, not protect them from the internet as I knew it.

I’m still afraid for them though and also for my adults. How do you help someone to stay safe when their pain feels overwhelming and they find others who feel the same way? What do you suggest other than the internet for social support? Do positive sources of information and camaraderie exist? How can we help clients determine where those positive places are?

None of these questions have simple answers, and none of them are answers I know how to give. So I’ll just be sitting here in my little corner of the internet sending hopes to the universe that my clients stay safe.

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