5 Things We Can Each Do To Make the Internet a Kinder and More Tolerant Place, With Rebecca Newman

I think online verbal attacks can feel worse than arguments in “real life.” In real life, you have the ability to read each other’s body language, tone, volume, and affect, and can slow down or pause when the conversation is escalating beyond productivity. Online, you are each responding to your respective environments, and can conjure […]

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I think online verbal attacks can feel worse than arguments in “real life.” In real life, you have the ability to read each other’s body language, tone, volume, and affect, and can slow down or pause when the conversation is escalating beyond productivity. Online, you are each responding to your respective environments, and can conjure sarcasm when the other intended authenticity, and most importantly, you can be exceedingly cruel and then sever all ties with the conversation, either by logging off or by utilizing blocking functions. The other party is left hurting, and now without any recourse.

I had the pleasure to interview Rebecca Newman, MSW, LCSW. Rebecca is a psychotherapist and writer from Philadelphia, PA. She provides individual therapy at the Thomas Jefferson University Physicians Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior in Philadelphia. Previously, Rebecca has worked as a therapist at a residential facility for treating eating disorders and at a methadone maintenance facility, with further experience in violence intervention, Employee Assistance Program counseling, and drug and alcohol treatment research. Rebecca earned a BA from Oberlin College in Creative Writing and an MSW from the University of Pennsylvania, where she received the John Hope Franklin Award for Combating American Racism. She specializes in working with eating disorders, anxiety, depression, infertility, substance abuse, relationships, grief and loss, gender and sexuality, trauma, and adjustment to life changes.

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?

Stories have fascinated me for as long as I can remember. My first jobs were at the local library and in a video store, where I had ready access to media where I could watch the layers of someone’s story unfold and begin to understand their complexity. This curiosity led me to a degree in Creative Writing, in tandem with developing increasingly meaningful friendships and relationships where a sense of emotional intimacy and confidence were strong. I wondered what it would be like to come off the written page to be with others through their journeys and stories, and decided to pursue social work. Clinical Social Work is all about centering the individual in their story, and now, as a therapist working with people long-term, I find so much meaning in bearing witness and acting as a support to people through the diverse changes in their lives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

Sadly, the privacy and confidentiality that I promise my clients bind most of the stories of my career, and cannot betray their trust. However, I find it fascinating that mental health stigma has already palpably declined since I began clinical work about ten years ago. I find even with my younger clients that I’m a fixture in their lives, and their partners will ask about me by name. “How’s Rebecca this week?” they’ll ask, and previously, I existed as a sequestered entity who was never discussed with anyone. It’s great to see people modeling mental health care having a positive role in their lives to those around them.

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 remember being so nervous leading up to my first therapy sessions, and spazzing to my supervisor “I’m going to ruin their lives! What if I ruin their lives?” My supervisor, calmly, reminded me that sessions have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and short of giving someone directions to a local bridge and instructing suicide, I could address and resolve any other mistake I made. When I think back to the fear I had, it feels comical, and I now have a good sense of balance between the humor that is necessary in life, work, and building relationships along with the solemnity of holding someone’s pain, experiences, and needs.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m working on a scholarly article about eating disorders among professionals, as well as some narrative non-fiction about friendship, mental health, and relationships. Scholarly articles have a significant impact on how health professionals provide treatment, and I feel passionately that individuals with eating disorders receive thoughtful and informed care. On the other end of the spectrum, I find that lived experiences, expressed in narrative pieces about relationships, can be provocative for readers improve their understandings of some of the dynamics in their lives.

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?

I belong to one of the first cohorts that grew into adolescence and adulthood with social media, so I was quite young when I experienced cyberbullying for the first time. Through early personal blogs, I discovered posts and comments written about me by my classmates, calling me, among other things, “the freshman leech.” Reading that post, I felt the world spinning around me, with my ears ringing, and an utter drop in my stomach. I was aware that I wasn’t particularly popular at the time, but being likened to a swamp creature was a different level of degradation, pain, and isolation.

What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?

The worst part of online comments of this nature is that you cannot un-read them or un-know them, and they rattle around in your head for years to come. It takes a lot of mental strength to immunize yourself against the hateful rhetoric and name-calling online, remembering that what that particular individual thinks of you carries no more universal weight than when your loved ones compliment or praise you. The sting from those words can last for a long time, and so I try to encourage people to prohibit that feedback from coming in at a drastically higher volume than words that are encouraging and affirming, while also acknowledging the real pain of being so hurt by others.
People in supportive roles, like parents and counselors, have often encouraged people who endure bullying to “not let them see how much they’re bothering you,” and to maintain a stiff upper lip, which I think demeans the severity of bullying of any kind. If we took the behavior of bullying, like verbal harassment, name calling, sometimes even physical violence, and put it in a different context, like a romantic relationship, we would call it intimate partner violence. Responding to bullying in any way, online or in vivo, requires a deep empathy and support, and reminding the individual of the ways in which they’re cared for and loved, not encouraging them to suck it up and try to ignore it.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

I can say without reservation that I have not. Even when my college had an anonymous message board, which was initially a sweet PostSecret-type site that eventually turned towards tearing others down, I did not engage with those types of comments and stopped using it, because none of that felt useful. I am fiercely protective of those who are experiencing online shaming, and never wanted to be the cause of making anyone else feel the way I did in my bedroom that afternoon when I was a teenager reading what my classmates thought of me.

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?

Public online critique is particularly scathing because it comes without context, tone, or any meaningful relationship with the commenter. I think one of the most common reactions that people have is the urge to take the vitriol from the commenter and create a generalized assumption that this is what people in your daily life think about you. Because negative feedback often comes in at a higher volume than praise or neutral commentary, we tend to give it more credit or validity. It can be valuable in those moments to do a little sound balancing and make sure we’re interrogating each piece of feedback thoughtfully for if or how we file it away.

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 online verbal attacks can feel worse than arguments in “real life.” In real life, you have the ability to read each other’s body language, tone, volume, and affect, and can slow down or pause when the conversation is escalating beyond productivity. Online, you are each responding to your respective environments, and can conjure sarcasm when the other intended authenticity, and most importantly, you can be exceedingly cruel and then sever all ties with the conversation, either by logging off or by utilizing blocking functions. The other party is left hurting, and now without any recourse.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

Shame always leads to isolation in some form. In traditional societies, our familial membership was the most important commodity we had, as isolation was tantamount to death. We needed membership to pool resources, like food and shelter. Guilt was the emotion we developed to prevent ourselves from transgressing against the group’s established social norms, which continues to today — we feel guilty about being loud in a library, because the social contract of the library is to be respectful of volume, and those norms are more significant in families, relationships, and workplaces. Shame is the emotion we experience once we have deviated from the social contract and are now isolated from our group in some form. In an online setting, it becomes so much more complicated because we call people out for their behavior, but in a completely anonymous forum where no one knows whether the reactionaries are living in glass houses themselves.
Jon Ronson’s book So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed dissects several well-known cases of online shaming and how the featured individuals’ lives and careers crumbled shortly following their experience. However, even shaming from within a community, like getting into a debate on Facebook, can result in changed relationships and feeling completely alone. Brené Bown is adamant that the antidote to shame is empathy. Shame creates the sense of “I am so bad, and no one will ever understand what I did.” Once someone empathizes with you, saying “I can understand why you reacted that way, or tried to do that. You must have been so scared and alone. I would have felt that way too,” the spell can be broken.

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?

Social media brings out the worst in people because we can end our conversations at will, it gives us true anonymity, and allows us to enact a false sense of power.

Distress tolerance is one of the most important factors I try to develop with my clients, because I think it is the most universally applicable strength. When we feel overwhelmed, angry, anxious, depressed, or fatigued, we experience an urge to eliminate whatever is causing the stress to “make it go away.” However, at various moments, we need to be able to tolerate those emotions and push through for a greater goal. Some examples of this are obvious, like muscle fatigue while running a marathon, but others are more subtle. In the world of online comments or even messages that make you feel uncomfortable, the phenomenon of blocking every single way of communicating with that person has become a substitute for resolving the issue. I think that people are especially brazen online because, armed with the knowledge that most people engage the block function readily and are swimming at their own risk, they feel that they can utilize a harshness that violates social norms of kindness and consideration.

Anonymity on the internet is a particularly dark reason why people feel able to be meaner online than in person. When you can’t see a face, can hide behind a moniker, and can disappear at will, the internet becomes a consequence-free place to express your anger, albeit in a completely maladaptive way.

That anger, I believe, is also an exertion of power in an environment that feels controlled. Michael Kimmel, a masculinity-studies expert, talks about how we seek a legitimate target for our rage — someone perceived as weaker, with less power over you, and someone who the person feels entitled to dominate. In this manner, people can create a narrative of the others they encounter online as weak, ignorant, and thus deserving of the shame and vitriol that comes at them through social media. The potential misunderstanding here is that people who are kind in real life are secretly hateful, when in fact, we are all complex and experience anger in conjunction with our predisposition to the kindness that binds us to others.

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. Write it gently: Think back to a time during which you’ve been truly vulnerable — perhaps you just endured a loss, were wrestling the worst stomach flu you’ve ever had, or simply got a fitful night of sleep. Everything that comes into focus on those days feels particularly harsh based on our own landscapes. As you write things to or about others, imagine reading it on your worst day, and write it gently. This doesn’t mean you can’t be honest or perhaps critical, it simply means to write it in a way that is free from hostility and disdain.
  2. Define your purpose: Are you on a platform to intake positive content, or to scoff at those whom you deem lesser than you? Are you here to join in public communities, or to mock and tear others down? Clarify your intention for patronizing a particular platform, group, or forum, and if you find that you’re there to boost your own self-esteem at the expense of others, think twice before commenting.
  3. Read it out of context, especially a legal one: With the prevalence of social media and the ready accessibility of the information and content we post, it is beneficial to comb over prospective posts with this mentality. The law is catching up with cases of cyber-bullying and revenge porn, and truly horrible comments could find their way into a suit someday. Everything you post becomes discoverable, so be meticulous about what you say. Even if they don’t make it to a suit, most law firms bring someone in during voir dire specifically to do social media checks on prospective jurors, and prospective jobs and educational institutes do their due diligence too.
  4. Clarify your desired outcome: I don’t think I’ve ever met someone who said, “I was having a spirited debate about Israel and Palestine on Facebook, and I think I’ve changed my mind on the whole thing.” We don’t often change minds on social media, but rather people end up digging in their heels further as debates rage on and become more heated. If your true desire is to change someone’s mind, or at least plant a seed of a new idea, the Internet is likely not the place where that will happen. Invite someone out to coffee, take it into a direct message, and try to have a respectful conversation.
  5. Come to their aid: When you see someone being ganged up on online, you can intervene. Even if you agree with the reasons that they are receiving the critique, there is still a less damaging way to share those thoughts. By participating in these types of shamings and dumping sessions, you are only making the practice that much more acceptable, and one day, more likely than not, it could happen to you. Intervene as if it were a cherished sibling, friend, or colleague, and even if their points were misinformed, they do not deserve that level of shame.

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?

The First Amendment prohibits government-sanctioned censorship, and private entities own social media companies. They do have a legal right to curate their platforms, but this is more a question of their values as companies rather than what they’re entitled to do. If social media companies claim to be a place for everyone, that means they have to be willing to tolerate the potential threat of certain language and speech that may disseminate on their site. If they plan to create a moderated online experience, the sites should, and do, communicate those expectations to the user prior to joining, and users are entitled to make decisions about whether or not that platform is for them and their intended use.

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

I would add, prior to being able to press “Post,” a prompt or button that says “Are you sure?” It would be a pop-up window that says something to the effect of “Imagine what you wrote read by your kindergarten teacher, future employer, extended family, prospective clients, educational institution, parents, friends, and children, in addition to the person or people to whom it is directed (remembering that they, too, are the child, friend, parent, colleague of others). Are you sure you want to post?” I think we make decisions about so many things so quickly that we don’t realize the impact our choices have both in the moment and over time, so my aim would be to slow the decision-making process down enough to make sure people are aware of the potential implications of their post.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

I read this quote first as a teenager, and have previously talked about its relevance about what will “happen” in your life, and I think it applies to relationships as well. We often cling to some relationships during a sea change of some kind, feeling convinced that this person is essential to our lives, and realize later, often after the relationship has faded, that they came into our lives for a crucial period of time, and it’s okay to let go, that the answers (and the people with answers) will find their way to you.

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 🙂

Jennifer Garner played a significant role in my understanding of what it could mean to be a strong woman. My family watched Alias together, and the idea of strategically and systematically destroying this larger toxic entity stuck with me. As she has experienced the trials and tribulations in her own life, she remains thoughtful yet firm with the media, and is by far my favorite person to follow on Instagram, where her warmth is palpable. She allows her children’s lives to remain private, and seems to love her work and feels passionately about her philanthropic adventures. Jennifer, I’d love to know you.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me, my writing, and my various creative endeavors on Instagram @rebeccanewmansown!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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