Therapy in the internet age

The internet can be a cruel, difficult place, and some of the victims of the worst elements of internet culture may seek counseling to help them process their trauma. Yet, many therapists seem ill-prepared to deal with the culture of the internet, from the resources people use to prevailing attitudes to the social context of online communities, and that puts their clients at a huge disadvantage. If clients are lucky, their therapists will refer them to someone more experienced, but if not, their therapists may flounder, dragging them down with them.

I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately thanks to the huge and ever-growing number of people I know who have experienced serious trauma because of their work online. That includes not just activists, but journalists, members of online communities, and people managing social media for employers. The internet can be an incredibly stressful place. This isn’t just because it’s fast-paced, with demands for extremely high levels of adaptability and the ability to respond immediately to anything and everything. It’s because the internet is incredibly cruel, and bullying, abuse, and harassment are rampant across the web, from kids being bullied by classmates to grown-ass adults who should know better harassing each other for not passing arbitrary political and social purity tests.

And the internet is a very distinct and strange culture. First, there are the media of exchange, which you really do need to have a certain degree of literacy to understand — try to explain Facebook, or Twitter, or Reddit, or Tumblr, or Instagram, Ravelry or Pinterest, comments sections, and any number of other corners of the internet. It’s hard. You can sort of get at their function (‘it’s an app you use to share photos’) but it’s harder to articulate and explain the community, and harder still to explain the fissures that develop, and the harsh parts of its culture. Subjects like doxing are more straightforward and easy to express in understandable terms, but they’re not the sum-total of abuse: They’re the inevitable consequence of systemic abuse and tolerance for same.

This isn’t to say that I think every single therapist everywhere should be on every imaginable online platform. That’s absurd. But some continuing education to provide people with the basics of how these platforms work, and how personalities on them interact, could be really helpful, because you don’t really need to be explaining how people are abusing you when you’re trying to process the trauma of abuse.

The internet is a fundamentally different world. Online culture isn’t just a simplistic extension of offline life — it has its own rhythms, its own social codes, its own approaches to issues. If you don’t understand them, you’re going to struggle to understand the things that people are tell you about their traumatic experiences. At best, you can recognise that you’re in over your head and you can get a client to a colleague who is better suited. At worst, you  may try to go it alone, sometimes at catastrophic costs.

I’ve had therapists who have told me to ‘just ignore it,’ or who have suggested that I ‘try going offline for a while.’ I’ve had people who seem to have a fundamental problem understanding that what I am describing is abuse, and that it comes with real costs. For people who work online, ignoring it isn’t an option. ‘It’ will only get worse. Taking a break isn’t an option either. In offline culture, it’s sometimes possible to take time off without catastrophic results, but not on the internet. On the internet, the abuse will continue. It will follow you. Meanwhile, you will lose valuable work and ground.

Online culture is paradoxical. At the same time that it does tremendous damage to people, people refuse to recognise that their abusive behaviour has real consequences that hurts actual human beings. Instead, they double down on that abuse, becoming even more cruel when people reveal that they are vulnerable and struggling. Someone who decides to take time off will be dragged through the mud, and will return to an even bigger pile of abuse than the one they left.

People don’t need to be told to step down or back away. They need to be empowered with actual tools to fight the abuse they experience at the hands of the internet. That means understanding not just what is happening, but how, and developing effective coping skills to help them manage what is going on in their lives. Those coping skills are going to look different from patient to patient and situation to situation, exactly like they do with offline abuse.

But given that the internet is occupying an ever-larger role, with more and more people not just online but living out large segments of their lives online, it’s really critical for the psychological and psychiatric professions to understand what the internet is doing to its most vulnerable, and how. Some people already are, and they’re doing great work — but there’s no consistent framework for referring patients who would be better served by an internet culture-literate therapist. Just as therapists specialise in other unique cultures and communities to help people who experience, say, sexual harassment at work, or abuse in their high school, they need to be carving out a niche for talking about online abuse and discussing how to combat it.

Because ‘just ignore it’ and ‘take a break for a while’ wouldn’t cut it offline, so why should be be acceptable online?

Image: No Internet, Marcelo Graciolli, Flickr