By Shira Feder,
When Sage Anastasi was a teenager, he spent a lot of time on Facebook, passionately defending social justice issues, such as queer rights or the legality of conversion therapy. Sometimes that passion turned into an angry night spent furiously debating with someone in the comments section of a friend’s post.
Anastasi made a concerted effort to change his online behavior after realizing that even if he felt like he had convinced his opponent of the correctness of his position, his agitation lingered. “Even if I won, I still had to spend time winding down afterward,” he said. “I was seeing more extreme forms of it in other people I knew, and I didn’t want to get to where they were, just spending all day fighting people.”
Looking back, however, Anastasi, a 23-year-old PhD student from New Zealand, wishes his friends had reached out to him. “I do think there are times when I was online where it would have been worth people’s stepping again,” Anastasi said, “even if it was just to ask if I wanted to go and do something else for a bit.”
When he told his friends that he thought that getting into a lot of fights online could be a sign that “my mental health is deteriorating,” he said, they seemed surprised. But intervening when a friend is having online meltdowns, he says, is “a good way of catching” a potential mental health issue in the early stages.
Experts we spoke to agreed. When someone is arguing with or baiting people frequently online, that “could be a sign that there’s maybe something up with that person,” said Natalie Pennington, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
People engaging in excessive online arguments are often emotionally dysregulated, psychologist Doreen Dodgen-Magee said. That means they are having strong emotional responses to people or events that fall outside the bounds of what others would consider acceptable. “People coping with depression and anxiety may find themselves in states of dysregulation, and being dysregulated can certainly lead people to feel anxious or depressed,” Dodgen-Magee said.
Dysregulated people who are emotionally involved in a topic are also “more likely to feel attacked by those who disagree,” media psychologist Pamela Rutledge said. Engaging in an unresolved conflict — debating gun control on Twitter, for example — often adds to negative emotions, she said, which can contribute to a cycle of reactivity.
So, if you’re witnessing friends or colleagues constantly getting into online arguments or writing provocative messages — which is behavior we seem to be seeing more of during the pandemic — these experts say you should resist the temptation to ignore it. Here’s why, and what you should do instead.
Why we just keep scrolling when we see something alarming
“Across every platform, when we see behavior like this, we tend to just keep scrolling,” Pennington said. She conducted a 2020 study with 312 participants, each of whom reported on 10 of their relationships, and found most people said that while they might mute or hide a friend acting oddly on social media, they would not reach out.
People tend not to reach out because doing so can be complicated, Pennington said. For example, if someone sees a status on Facebook that has gone to thousands of people but is of a personal nature — academics call this mass personal communication — the boundaries can seem fuzzy. Sometimes, you know how to react, like when someone announces a pregnancy, but sometimes it can get tricky, like when someone posts about getting a divorce or shares a strongly felt political opinion.
“People wonder if they were the intended audience for the post, or if they were even meant to engage,” Pennington said. “They don’t want to seem like stalkers.”
But while our instinct is to allow people their online privacy, even if they’re posting publicly, social media can give you a window into a person’s state of mind that you might not otherwise have. “Social media is not this place like Mars that we just go to sometimes, it’s an extension of our social world,” Rutledge said. “If someone is vulnerable and seeking external feedback, they’re going to be like that offline as well as on.”
That means that if somebody you don’t see often is going through a rough period, it might become evident on their social media before you see them in person.
Why people share things online that they might not say in person
You might wonder why people post potentially controversial things on their social media. It’s partly because people tend to lose sight of how large their audiences can be when posting publicly, Rutledge said. “Unless you’re a rock star, your brain is incapable of imagining 100,000 people listening to you,” she said. “We don’t take our audience into account that way when we’re posting because our brains just don’t work at that level of complexity. How could they?”
Posting on social media, as opposed to sharing personal news or opinions offline, also allows people to avoid dealing with the real-time reaction their posts might be causing. “We are always more likely to throw a hand grenade that’s going to explode in a space where we aren’t going to be, and digital spaces are definitely that,” Dodgen-Magee said. “As more of our communication migrates into those spaces, we feel greater freedom to express things in ways that we never would if we had to face the personal reaction to what we’re sharing.”
In neuroscience terms, you get the same hit of dopamine from posting something sensationalist that you would from telling someone the same thing, Dodgen-Magee said. But that dopamine rush of posting online comes without having to manage other people’s responses in real time, allowing you to avoid the consequences of what you’ve decided to share.
Dodgen-Magee said that for some people, intense responses are more satisfying than positive responses. If a provocative post is causing waves on social media, more people will engage with it, causing the algorithm to interpret that as interest in the post, circulating it further, and reinforcing people’s desire to push for that kind of extremity again. “When this behavior is encouraged, we’ll do what we can to get the intensity of that response rather than seeking pro-social responses,” Dodgen-Magee said. So, for some people, posting something on Twitter with which 700 people disagree might be preferable to posting something that only 10 people like. But while this behavior is common on social media, Dodgen-Magee points out that it isn’t exactly healthy.
What to do when you see someone arguing too much
If you’ve got a friend whose social media posts are concerning you, here are tips from our experts about how to move forward.
Assess the posts. Remember that what you might consider to be provocative can be different for others. Is this actually alarming, or is this just something you might not personally post?
“I definitely think there’s times when people post things that they shouldn’t,” Pennington said. “But that’s also my own frame of reference for what I think I shouldn’t. Different people have different things they feel comfortable putting online.”
Reach out — but not online. Posting your response as a public comment can force people to have to “perform” a response, Dodgen-Magee said. Use whatever method you normally use to reach out, whether that is phone or text. Phone calls are particularly optimal for this.
Manage your tone. Make sure you don’t sound accusatory, and try not to diagnose or label, because that can stop the conversation in its tracks. “Don’t say, ‘I just saw something sort of crazy you posted,’ ” Rutledge said. “Just start with, ‘Hey, how are you? I just noticed you made a couple of posts that sounded like maybe something was going on with you.’”
Don’t just talk about the post, try to get at what is underneath it. “If you only respond to the contents of a post, it’s like cutting a weed off at the dirt level, it’s just gonna come right back up,” Dodgen-Magee said.
Reach out to your friend’s friends. If the person isn’t listening, and you feel like your friend is in need of help, reach out to the people around that person and ask if they’ve seen your friend lately or noticed any alarming behaviors.
Don’t be afraid to use the report button. If you don’t have a personal connection to the person, but feel like you have to do something, or if the material that person is posting feels dangerous or misleading, report it. “The algorithm is not an ethical or moral compass, and it will circulate any post people are responding to, Dodgen-Magee said. “But reporting will at least get human eyes on it.”
As for Anastasi, he’s working toward a data science PhD, with a focus on social networks and hate speech, both topics inspired by his experience. Online, he’s seen more discussions on the ways mental health can be affected by social media, but wishes they were more mainstream. “Things are improving, but we’ve still got ways to go,” he said.
Shira Feder lives in New York and writes about health, technology and culture.
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