Friday, 2 July 2021

The Importance Of Setting Boundaries Online

Existing online in 2021 is very much like walking a tightrope...the struggle to get the right balance between sharing enough of yourself to allow people to connect with you, and not oversharing and crossing boundaries is a difficult one. The slightest tilt in either direction can have potentially catastrophic consequences.

I've fallen from this particular tight rope numerous times during my years as a blogger, finding myself in situations where I've shared too much of my personal life for the comfort of others around me. At times I even came to feel that I'd overstepped my own boundaries, and given too much of myself away for the consumption of strangers who sadly do not always have positive intentions.

When I first started this blog 8 years ago. I was totally inexperienced in online affairs, and the blogosphere was still in its infancy.

At the time, I was heavily pregnant with my first child, struggling with pre-natal anxiety and feelings of loneliness during a difficult pregnancy.  My motivation for creating a blog and sharing my experiences was largely to find friendships - to feel a kinship with other mothers, to feel less isolated.

In my excitement at having found this new outlet for my thoughts and feelings, I gave little thought to what I shared.

At first there were very few people reading, so it didn't seem to matter what I spoke about. I didn't really know about digital footprints then, it wasn't something anybody really spoke about. 

As time went on, I became almost desensitized to sharing my life experiences - I recall lots of comments left on my posts praising my bravery in being so honest and open about my experiences, as I discussed everything from post-natal depression to past domestic abuse. 
I remember feeling quite bewildered by these comments because it had come to feel completely natural to me to hold nothing back - to share my life and all of its ups and downs with total disregard for the privacy I was giving up.

So focused was I on the positive aspects of sharing - the discovery of other people with similar experiences, the mutual support and cheerleading, the desire to raise awareness of issues that mattered to me - that I didn't pay much attention to the potential downsides.

But slowly over time, those downsides began to show themselves. 

There were times I overstepped the mark with sharing my personal disagreements with family members - thinking only about my own feelings and seeking support, without taking a moment to consider that it may be crossing the boundaries of other people involved.

Eventually, I came to realise that along with an increasingly large number of readers comes the sadly inevitable and universal internet right of passage - the trolls.

Trolls can take many forms. There are the complete strangers who know nothing about you or your life other than what you've chosen to share, but form their opinions on you based on this very one-sided and limited knowledge anyway. Thinking that the tiny amount of your life they know of is enough for them to truly know who you are as a person and what your life is like in reality.

Then there are the past acquaintances who come out of the woodwork - the co-workers from decades ago that you didn't get on with, the old school friends excited to share what you were like as a teen, or  the spurned ex of a partner. 

They can attack you in many different ways - from leaving cruel anonymous comments on blog posts and creating fake social media profiles to hide behind so that they can send unkind messages, to creating entire threads on hate forums where they group together to unite in their shared love of gossiping about the strangers they watch on the internet - sometimes posting multiple times per day, taking delight in judging everything from home décor to the way children talk or dress.

This dark side of the internet is very real and very troubling. I'd be lying if I said I don't regret some of the personal things I've allowed these bizarre strangers to know about me and my children. 

If I could turn back the clock, there is plenty I'd change about my online presence. For a start, I'd have used nicknames rather than our real names, I wouldn't have spoken about where in the country we live. 

But I can't turn the clock back - and so instead I have to move forward with awareness of the potential consequences of what I choose to share here.

Every persons boundaries online will be different, and nobody has the right to decide what they should be.

I've thought long and hard about what to share of my children online going forwards. There are certain aspects of their lives that nobody online knows anything about, just as there are many events and aspects of my own life that I have never spoken about online and never will.

While it's important to share some personal experiences and thoughts if you want to connect with your audience, it's crucial to set your boundaries from the start.

For me personally, it's about weighing up the pros and cons before sharing. Asking myself, do I feel that the importance of raising awareness about a particular issue is worth giving that experience away for public consumption.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

For example - my children are home educated. I allow people to know this, and I share my own experiences and thoughts surrounding it - but my boundary is that I won't photograph or film my children's work to allow it to be seen by anyone on public spaces online, or invade their learning space with a video camera. No YouTube videos about their routines or our days together at home - any content I do create is just me talking about our plans and resources, nothing else. That's my boundary.

Boundaries are also important when it comes to social media - there are always people who like to push them, and it's important to be present online with the knowledge that you do not owe ANYBODY access to you.

When you have a public social media profile, people can sometimes feel that they have a right to access you -  they can become angry at a lack of fast responses to direct messages, they can hold an expectation that they can say what they like to you without consequence.

Having clear boundaries on what you're willing to allow and how you're willing to engage with people helps to avoid these situations.

It's so important that not only do you set these boundaries, but you honour them too. I've lost count of the number of occasions I've felt unsure about a person who follows my social media accounts - noticing that they engage negatively, that they become increasingly rude in their messages - and every time I second guess myself to give them the benefit of the doubt I've been continually proven right. Trust your instincts. If something doesn't feel right, it's probably not right.

I used to spend hours feeling anxious whenever I'd post on social media - waiting for passive aggressive messages from people who would continually upset me but feeling as though I just had to grin and bare it. But I don't have to do that.  My advice for any social media user is to block freely! Create a safe space for yourself first and foremost - if someone makes you feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable, it is your right to remove them from your space. No second chances.

I feel so much happier with my online presence these days - I block people the moment I feel that they've overstepped a boundary or presented themselves to me in a way that brings me even the slightest discomfort. I block 90% of cisgender, straight men the very second that they follow me because I would prefer my online space to be one where I feel free of the discomfort their presence can spark in me...that is 100% my call to make and my right to do.  I immediately block anyone who follows me from an account that looks fake. Recently I've also started to limit comments on my social media posts to only people who follow me, because this makes me feel less vulnerable.  

Setting these boundaries and taking these actions have been the difference between enjoying my online space, and feeling anxious and unsafe.

Whatever capacity you show up in online, take the time to figure out your own boundaries and ensure that you stick to them. 

Remember, you don't owe anybody access to you. 

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