by Tammy Fletcher, M.A., IMF, CFT, BCPC
I heard it said recently that meeting people on the internet is this generation’s “pen pal connection.” Given the number of folks I know through a solely electronic medium, this makes sense to me. I have a number of people I have come to know via Facebook, Twitter, and my blog, primarily in the area of similar work interests. But, as people tend to do, with some we find mutual interests in other areas and begin to connect as friends. Some I have met in person, some I have not due to our geographical distance.
I am a bit of a skeptic. Added to that, I am the mom of a young woman who has recently left her teen years, just as this “making friends on the internet” thing was reaching its peak. To say I approach the internet with a great deal of caution is an understatement. That said, I embrace it as well and find it has been a fantastic adjunct to my world, both professionally and personally. Whether networking with other therapists, or recently coming across a long-lost nephew, in my experience the benefits of social interaction on the internet far outweigh the negatives.
How can you maximize your chances of positive interactions with internet friends? How can you separate the trustworthy from the shady? Here are some tips I have learned along the way. Feel free to comment with your own!
1) Beware the “instant BFF.” Just like in person, it takes time to get to know someone enough to consider them a friend. It may take even longer to reach a level of comfort and trust, with the physical contact, eye-to-eye component taken away. Let’s say you have come across a new internet acquaintance with all the exuberance and commitment of a puppy….eager to open up, know everything about you, and swearing love and lifelong friendship. Slooow down. Take the same amount of time, if not more, to get to know your new friend. Open up at your own pace.
2) Don’t believe everything you see. “It’s on the internet – that’s makes it true, right?” Nothing could be further from the truth. There are hundreds of stories that go something like “I just found out my 24-year-old blonde, 110 lb fiancée IS A MAN” and “I donated money to a fund for a sick little girl. It seemed completely legitimate. It turns out it was a scam, and there is no way I can get my money back.” I wish I could say these are the punchlines to a couple of bad jokes, but they are not. The person you are chatting with may or may not be who they claim to be behind the monitor. The cause they are promoting may or may not be legitimate. Keep that in mind in your interactions. Be yourself, but use caution and check out any red flags.
3) Don’t detach from your “real life”: Many of us know what it is like to sit down at the computer to finish “just one more email,” become distracted, and then look up to see it is four hours past bedtime, our spouse has gone to sleep, and we’ve web-surfed the night away. It is vital to stay in touch with your non-internet family members, friends, and activities. If you need to, set an egg timer or an alarm to remind you when to log off. If you feel your internet relationships and activity might be interfering with your everyday life, keep a journal of how much time you spend online and think about whether or not it might be too much.
4) Behaviors on the internet may not be the same as people show in real life. A boisterous, socially active person may be shy and anxious around people offline. Internet “trolls,” individuals who log onto social networking sites to act out aggressive impulses and pick fights may show a more civilized and courteous persona in person. There is something about the ‘net for some people that allows them to display behaviors which reflect traits contrary to who they really are. Again, taking it slow and getting to know others before jumping into a friendship or professional affiliation is always wise.
5) When in doubt, check it out. If claims to fame and fortune sound too good to be true, they probably are. If you are unsure about a contact you have made, take a step back and pay attention to your gut feelings. Check Google for more facts, and approach online interactions or business connections with an investigative attitude and an open mind.
The internet is an amazing part of our lives. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the web wasn’t a part of our everyday existence. Now that it is, we need to adopt a new strategy for healthy and smart interactions and behaviors. Enjoy the internet, and the people there! But remember to keep your eyes open and verify what you see and hear before opening your heart, time, and even wallet to those you meet online. If you feel that your internet use might be a problem and you are struggling to change it, there are more and more therapists today who are trained in Internet Addiction. Reach out for help if you need to!