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A Criticism of the Online Landscape and a Look into Internet Trauma

Referencing her own experiences with social media, LOG OFF Guest Writer, Sarah Martin, explores the dangers of an online presence and the repercussions of growing up with and finding your place within these platforms.

When adults warned of the dangers of the internet, my biggest regret is not listening. When I was 8 or 9, I was heavily bullied in school because of how shy and quiet I was, and the fact that I had no friends; sometimes, I even received this criticism from teachers. See, bullying had always been common throughout my time in the public school system before I switched to cyberschool. I had received it from students and teachers alike. For that reason, loneliness is also a crucial part of who I am; sometimes, I feel as though maybe I’m not meant to belong in any group of friends.

See, I became immersed in the internet at such a young age because it gave me an outlet to discuss my interests, whether it had been when I was 8 or 9 and obsessing over Monster High and Lady Gaga, or during my emo phase when I needed a place to gush over My Chemical Romance and other bands of that nature. Even now, as an 18-year-old, I still need at least one or two areas to discuss my interests in anime and K-Pop within a community.

The difference now is that I have severely limited my presence online--for many reasons. Internet trauma is a very real thing. The issue with trying to find a community online, especially as a kid, is that people will see how naive you are and try to take advantage of it in one way or another, possibilities ranging from harmless trolling to extended harassment and stalking. Due to these things, I deleted all social media with a few exceptions, just so I could stay in the loop with my interests. At first, I was afraid; however, the online connection has proven itself time and time again to be a facade (at least to me). Whenever your primary source of connection is online, it will never be truly fulfilling or safe.

When I was 12, I started receiving unsolicited pictures from men I’d never spoken to online. When I was 13, I found myself in a dangerous community and spent a few months trying to hide from more men sending me violent threats. When I was 14, another man tried to convince me that “age is just a number” after telling me that he was 20. That being said, I never told my parents, because, despite all of the scary things that were taking place, I didn’t want to lose my access to the internet because these websites were my only sources of external recognition. I had no friends in real life; online, I had hundreds of people willing to hype me up. It was temporary, sure, but it made me feel so much better about myself when I was younger. Despite this, I had not been in any close friend groups. This made me feel just as lonely as not having any friends in my offline life--but man, did those likes and comments fill the void for a while. My first relationship had been online; we lived on opposite ends of the United States. He was quite cool, and despite everything that ensued (it was neither his fault nor mine), we’re still friends. What transpired with one of his exes and myself, though, is an entirely different story.

She is still stalking me to this day, on top of having videos of me on her phone. It’s strange. I’ve never met this person, but she has gone through the trouble of talking smack about me and managing to have kept up the one-sided grudge for about three years now. She is not my only stalker, either. I have a few more, all of whom began stalking me through online discourse. Online discourse is another massive issue. There are healthy ways to engage with it.

However, it often amounts to nothing in terms of meaning because as soon as you log off for the day, nothing you are fighting over matters offline. Given the current atmosphere of Twitter, especially, my point is proven. It always coalesces strawman arguments, fancams, and cheap insults to score a couple of retweets. I think that everybody at this point has heard of cancel culture. Well, online discourse often leads to at least one or two people being “canceled.” I found myself in this situation more than once, and I’d also been on the other end of it. As someone who has been on the other end of trying to cancel someone on Twitter, it’s more likely than not committed by people with low self-esteem who want that false sense of superiority over someone else. It also often leads to nowhere in most cases, other than making yourself look like a fool for trying to cancel someone over something minor. You’ll also have an overwhelming sense of guilt that follows you around for a while. I’ve also been the one to be canceled quite a few times. As someone who has been on the receiving end, as a minor nonetheless... it’s still not doing anything. In my experience, when you are ganged up on Twitter, it is upsetting. Especially if they’re threatening you and slinging insults towards your appearance or intelligence. It’s even worse whenever you have been the one to berate other people over the same types of asinine things. Since then, I try to remind myself that Twitter discourse has no place in real life. As soon as you log out or shut your laptop lid, everything on Twitter, for the most part, is entirely irrelevant. The online connection becomes an absolute lie whenever people forget that the people they are berating...are human just like them. This entire thing is backwards. Many people dive headfirst into online communities looking for valuable human connections. Still, more often than not, it turns into a slugfest of who can dehumanize everyone else the most so that the winner gets a temporary false sense of superiority. This often manifests in the performative activism we see on social media today. The good thing about these platforms is that they can be used to spread awareness about issues in the world and causes that people feel passionate about. The problem comes in when people turn it into a competition. It is no longer about genuine philanthropy and altruism; now, it’s turned into the same slugfest as aforementioned, where whoever can share the most outrageous news first becomes the theoretical “winner.” There is also the issue of people using social issues as part of their social media branding or aesthetic. People turning protests into photoshoots or turning genuine social movements into a quirky Hello Kitty meme have become quite the trend in recent months. Turning activism into a competition is a massive flaw of the internet age. Whenever you take social media’s general nature into account, you are not only dealing with external forces trying to mess with you; now, you are dealing with algorithms. The algorithms then cause an internal struggle leaving you to question if your content is truly the best you can do- or if it’s good enough at all. The competitive nature of social media is a newer issue with the internet. However, I think it is one of the most damaging. Social media has become a way for people to capture the moment but not truly live it. As an artist, I can say that it is detrimental to your mental health when your art is not performing due to algorithm shifts- I even started beating myself up because nobody bought my commissions despite the constant promotion. I began questioning if the hours of work I put into my art and improving my craft was still not good enough for the recognition I wanted. Social media has turned everything into a business- whether it be art or just selfies, it is still promoting this sort of business-like mentality. Imagine, with children receiving phones younger and younger, how harmful this could be to them? It detracts from the reality that your heart needs to be truly immersed in your hobbies; when you have that immersion, social media validation is irrelevant. If you legitimately enjoy something, you wouldn’t need the validation from hundreds of strangers online. I’ve come to realize that social media might very well be the death of the artist because of people forgetting why they loved art in the first place if, now, everything is valued on likes, shares, and comments. The internet is incredibly traumatizing to younger kids and teenagers online. Tumblr used to be notorious for the communities that romanticized eating disorders, self-harm, and mental illness. I often say that Twitter is the new Tumblr; this is one of the reasons. Since the downfall of Tumblr, these communities migrated over to Twitter, as well as TikTok. I’m quite critical of my generation, Gen-Z, because, collectively, everyone promotes this idea that not recovering from your mental illness or having unhealthy coping mechanisms is the peak of comedy because that scores them popularity on social media. The issue with this mentality is that, now, we have even more young kids running to these platforms to diagnose themselves with severe mental problems and then laugh it off with self-deprecation. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fall into this hole at least once or twice. Another dilemma I had fallen into, much more severely, had been the eating disorder community from Tumblr back in the day. Had I not discovered this community, I would probably have a much better relationship with food, as well as my body image. Overall, I think that the internet has its pros and cons, as with any other thing, but for me, the cons heavily outweigh the pros in the end. The number of times I had found myself battling with the algorithms, warding off stalkers or unwanted attention, and becoming stressed over discourse that has no real place in the world became too much for me. I feel like my youth has been wasted on social media, and I sincerely regret that. I’m at a point now where I can honestly say that I would take no offline attention/validation any day over the number of crazy things I have experienced online. Social media has created a sense that if you don’t immediately post something or are not scrolling the feeds constantly, then you’re going to miss out. That’s never the case though; life always goes on without the irrelevant tsunami of information that social media will always overwhelm the average consumer with. I learned this within the first week or so without it. Eventually, that need for constant consumption and validation just vanishes, and I can say that I’m honestly becoming happier without it every day I spend away from social media.

Cover Art by John Soo from Unsplash