Remember tone, sarcasm, and humor don’t always translate online. Neither do inside jokes that you make with your intimate circles. If you make a comment that lands wrong in real life, it is a lot easier to gauge someone’s reaction. Their shoulders may droop, their body may stiffen, they may sharply inhale, they may roll their eyes, or that may literally say, “That’s not funny.” You can then take that cue to clarify or apologize beyond the shrugging emoji or some regret meme that we get online.
As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Ellen Friedrichs. Ellen is a health educator, writer, and mom of three. She runs a middle and high school health education program, and teaches at Brooklyn College in New York. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, the HuffPost, and Rewire News. She also answers questions on the okayso app. Find Ellen on social media @ellenkatef.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Ellen! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
Let’s see, I’m originally Canadian, from Vancouver, but I’ve lived in New York for twenty years! I have three kids.
Early in my career, I was able to travel to Mumbai India to work with an HIV support agency and then I worked in an HIV prevention program back in the Bronx. For many years, I’ve taught middle and high school health education and college human sexuality. I also write for various publications and news outlets. Some of my writing covers my experiences parenting after the unexpected death of my older kid’s dad, and then co-parenting and blending my family with a new partner.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I think a lot of my most interesting experiences come from what I learn from my students (for example, it was a middle schooler who first introduced me to the term “sapiosexual”). But I have also had some heartbreaking experiences, like a college freshman staying after class to tell me that until that night’s lecture she had always blamed herself for being raped while under the influence of alcohol.
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 don’t think this falls under the funny category, but I have definitely changed the way I talk about certain things with an eye to the fact that students in the room could very well have had the experiences I was mentioning. So early in my career, I know I would paint getting an STI or becoming a teen parenting much more stark terms. At some point I started trying to offer a different view of those things, STIs as comparable to any other illness, teen parenting as challenging but not automatically devastating. On that topic, I always reference one teen parent in particular, a teen mom who’d gone on to get a PhD and travel the world and then have a child who went on to be the 44th president, Barack Obama. Obviously, that is not the most common trajectory, but the typical narrative is so dire and hopeless and falls under the heading of ineffective scare-tactics that demonize in the process.
Ok, thank you for that. 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?
Once, after I wrote a piece on talking to my own kids about sex, a commenter called me something like “the worst mother in America.” I had felt so good about the article and the way I was handling this topic at home, and that really stung. It didn’t shake my belief in my approach, but it did remind me that talking about this issue was in no way neutral and for a time it made me nervous about doing so publicly.
What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?
I don’t think it was something I shook off right away. But I think over time, I came to more fully acknowledge that there are so many ways to see the world and that no matter how strongly I feel about my own views, there are also going to be others who feel just as strongly about theirs. But of course, it is one thing to feel strongly and it is a whole different story when that compels you to anonymously name call and harass others online.
Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?
You know what? I just don’t think I have! It’s not my style, and since I have spent much of my career working with kids and teens, I am usually hyper-vigilant about publicly commenting on someone personally in a negative way.
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?
This is something I actually talk about a lot with my students who are so deeply immersed in digital culture. The thing is, that while the person writing the comment might not perceive the recipient as a real person with real feelings, the person receiving the comment is very, very human and the attacks feel as intense virtually as they would in person.
In my book I talk about the importance of teaching empathy, particularly as a tool of sexual assault prevention, and how while it might not always feel natural, I deeply believe that empathy can be learned and can grow from a place where it hadn’t existed before. So we often dehumanize and objectify people in order to do something harmful, but acknowledging another person’s humanity and that it is as fully developed as your own is key to preventing harm.
Do you think a verbal online attacks feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?
I think it really depends. In an online attack you can feel like there is no immediate way to defend yourself and the back and forth can be really limited. Plus, it can feel so public and like you have been shamed in front of the whole world.
What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?
Often the people who are targeted are already marginalized in society. Girls and women, boys and men who are perceived to be “feminine,” and LGBTQ+ folks may have their very identities and the core of who they are used as a slur in an utterly demoralizing and dehumanizing way. There can be definite impacts on self-esteem, overall mental health, and stress levels.
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?
I guess I would say that social media can bring out both the best and the worst in folks. I’ve seen some real kindness and consideration grow through social media platforms. But yes, also some of the worst behavior as well. Certainly, the anonymity emboldens people and when a negative comment gets you likes or virtual laughs, that encourages aggressors to continue behaving in a hostile manner that they might have backed off on in real life where there wasn’t an audience.
I sometimes think about one of the most awful cases of this I ever read about. It was a situation where a sexual assault was in the process of occurring and instead of intervening, bystanders posted pictures and videos to social media. That is the worst of it. An utterly debased response that just perpetuates a terrible cycle of othering in order to justify harm. But then I am heartened when I think about all the support that people who are survivors of crimes like sexual assault can receive online and which may not have been available to them where they live. Or they might not have access to the kind of confidential support they can get online. This can be the best of our virtual world.
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?
1) Take it out of the public eye. DMing someone, texting, or emailing them, or even, dare I say, picking up the phone or talking in person, is so much more effective. I often say to students, “Think about a time you were called out publicly versus a time when someone had a private talk with you when they were upset. Which method did you respond to more positively?”
2) Hold each other accountable and forgive when that is the best way to heal and move forward. We all make mistakes, but in my book I talk about making space for forgiveness when it is warranted and when people have done the hard work to hold themselves accountable. In some of the online circles I am part of there have been members who have been working to be accountable for actions where they may have caused harm to others. So much of how we operate tends to be on a punishment model, but pure punishment is so problematic and rarely allows for individual and cultural changes. Sexuality educator Bianca Laureano has a great piece on Medium about this called “How Do We Hold Each Other Accountable When We Mess Up?” which I think is really helpful. One of her tips for social media and our digital mistakes is actually not to delete hurtful comments or posts, but to use those posts and comments as part of what she calls “unlearning.”
3) Pause. The immediacy of social media can make us hasty and can compel people to post faster than they should. We don’t need to post every reaction we have to something we see online immediately. That’s hard when social media and the news cycle seem to move so fast. Back in college, I tried really hard to sleep on every paper I turned in so I could look at it with fresh eyes in the morning. These days that tactic can make us feel like we are missing out on something, but I think it is a good principal.
4) Remember tone, sarcasm, and humor don’t always translate online. Neither do inside jokes that you make with your intimate circles. If you make a comment that lands wrong in real life, it is a lot easier to gauge someone’s reaction. Their shoulders may droop, their body may stiffen, they may sharply inhale, they may roll their eyes, or that may literally say, “That’s not funny.” You can then take that cue to clarify or apologize beyond the shrugging emoji or some regret meme that we get online.
5) Nothing is private and everything lasts forever. It is so easy to forget what a wide audience our online presence can have. Just because something you posted only has 15 likes, don’t forget that thousands of people may have seen it, or will see it in the future. Screenshots, Wayback Machine, and various other methods can mean that even something you delete can remain in the ether in a way that you really may not want it to.
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 is always an interesting one for me. I am Canadian (though I have lived in the United States for twenty years). But I wasn’t raised to see free speech the same ways that most Americans were as Canada has anti-hate speech laws. I remember when I was kid and a Jewish youth group I was part of was mailed a series of hateful fliers (mail: it was the 90s), this was a crime under anti-hate speech laws.
I have always supported those and I would welcome anti-hate speech policies in online spaces as well. I know there are people in the US who demonize many of Canada’s more progressive social policies and reforms. But as someone who grew up with those protections I was grateful for them. Canada isn’t perfect but I think there is a lot to be modeled.
If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?
It often seems that policies aren’t enforced uniformly. But overall, I am not actually someone who usually thinks we just need more rules and laws. I’m more into education and guidelines. When I talk about my support for sex ed, I often use an old professor’s analogy: that we wouldn’t expect teens to be proficient drivers without having taken driving lessons and passing a driving test, so why do we think they will just figure out sex on their own the day they turn 18 or get married?
In the same vein, we need more digital citizenship classes offered by the various social media sites. I talk about this in my health classes, but it is really the responsibility of the internet giants to provide an educational framework and community guidelines that goes beyond some user agreement that no one reads. I know some places are trying that. I recently heard about a site called Mastodon which has built in anti-abuse functionalities and strict community guidelines. If that takes off, it could be a new model.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
When I was a kid, my mother used to tell me that if I was having conflict with someone, “Don’t say it.” At the time I thought this was out of touch. It was obvious to me that people needed to talk through their interpersonal conflicts to work things out, and I didn’t want to seem like a pushover. But I see it a little differently now. Not every thought or criticism we have needs to be shared. And instead of “saying it,” often it pays to just listen or consider where the other person is coming from.
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 🙂
I’d love to sit down with my fellow Canadian, Margaret Atwood, and ask her how she has been so terrifyingly prescient!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I can be found on Twitter and Instagram @ellenkatef.
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!