Zen priest Gesshin Greenwood offers five tips for staying safe and sane online.
The internet is a scary place these days. Actually, it’s always been a scary place. Remember when your kids getting abducted by strangers they met in chatrooms was the most pressing danger of the internet? Now your kids are the ones programming the chatrooms.
And yet, since the revelations that Cambridge Analytica harvested our Facebook data to psychologically manipulate millions of American voters, it’s even harder to see the internet as just clean fun. We’ve suspected that increased social media use leads to depression and low self-esteem for years, and yet when push comes to shove, it’s hard to bite the bullet and delete Facebook. So how to walk the middle way through this treacherous forest of low self-esteem, internet addiction, and global surveillance? I don’t really have an answer to this last one (maybe watch “Minority Report” and play a drinking game where you take a shot every time the movie accurately predicted the future?), but here are just a few suggestions about how to keep your sanity online.
1. Invest in an app blocker
I love my app blockers deeply. On my computer, I use SelfControl, a handy downloadable Mac desktop app that blocks certain websites for the amount of time you choose. Some people also recommend Block Site for Google Chrome. On my phone, I pay $5 a year for the app Freedom. Some apps can block applications and websites according to a schedule. For example, my phone can’t access social media or email between the hours of 10 pm and 9 am. I do this so that I can sleep without constantly checking social media. (Note: It’s actually impossible to actually block the Facebook app with Freedom — they’re sneaky! — but you can delete the app from your phone and then block the App Store, which makes it so you can’t redownload Facebook.)
2. Engage one-on-one, not in a public forum
Social media is a great way to access and spread information, but it is rarely an effective way to engage in sensitive political or personal discussions. Although it seems tempting (and perhaps necessary) to engage the racist trolls commenting on your friends’ posts, experience has taught me that this rarely — if ever — works well. (Some activists have suggested it’s more helpful to “call people in” rather than “call people out.”) Instead of shaming (or even engaging) with commenters online, you can contact them privately and try to have a one-on-one conversation. This makes it more likely that you will actually respond to each other’s words, rather than respond from emotion.
3. Practice “Right Posting”
The Buddha, who lived around the 5th century BC, suggested that we all practice Right Speech. He defined this as speech that is kind, honest, and timely. Our words can be kind, but not honest, or honest, but not kind or spoken at the right time. Even if we are practicing right speech, it is much easier to do this in spoken speech than online, because we don’t relate to internet activity as speech. When posting something online it is useful to take three breaths before clicking “post,” and asking yourself, “Is this kind?” As a feminist, I am often quite angry at the world and prone to rants, so although my anger is valid I try to minimize the bitter complaining I post. It might be better to do that in a journal or even a well-research essay.
Be conscious of the Facebook feed you are creating for others.
Is the post honest? This is all the more important in the age of fake news. Do you know who wrote the news article? Is it from a reputable source? If it is a meme, critically examine the meme’s message before reposting. Memes are catchy. They hook us with their humor and emotional content. But are they factually true? What are they really saying? It is important to be critical of even humorous memes.
Lastly, are our posts necessary? How many horrible articles about Trump do we need to repost every day? Be conscious of the Facebook feed you are creating for others. We all have to exist online together. Is a video of a cat snuggling with a dog necessary? Well, it might be. My mental health has been greatly aided by pet videos. But we all should be thinking about the virtual world we want to create.
4. Clean-up your Facebook privacy.
I am not an expert on this, but there are many articles on how to, such as this one.
5. Practice radical vulnerability online
I was talking with my friends a few weeks ago, and someone mentioned how we “compare our insides to other people’s outsides.” In other words, we look at the facade of others, which is usually happy and successful, and compare how we feel to that happy image. As a result, we feel terrible. It’s not new information that people only share their best 5% online, and that this creates a reality in which everyone seems to be doing better than they actually are. But what happened if we shared our failures, rejections, and insecurities online instead? What if we posted about our loneliness, our need for human connection, or fears — not just our wedding photos and news about personal projects? Shifting away from an emphasis on posting news (we should be getting our news from a newspaper anyway!) towards honest and vulnerable communication will do much to create an internet culture that is kinder and truer. This is because human beings, when they are being honest, are not always happy or confident. We are insecure and crave connection and belonging. This is why we turn to the internet in the first place. Let’s be honest about that.