my book, presciently titled The Plague of the Tender Hearted, came out last year, and its cover depicts a childhood portrait my father painted of me, from my parents’ library. The book centers around the suicide of my youngest brother—a topic some members of our family don’t like to discuss. Recently, I was stunned to discover my book being sold online at Target and Walmart, with that very portrait coming up readily.
I always thought that writing poetry offered some measure of privacy, since the audience was small. So eager have I been to educate people about addiction, suicide awareness, and prevention that I’d forgotten how much I was revealing about myself and my life. I was ill-prepared for this invasion of privacy that I myself had unleashed. This led me to ask: What can we do to maintain our boundaries online when we can’t control our privacy?
I asked three experts to weigh in. Marcia Ferstenfeld, a relationship therapist and speaker out of Southfield, Michigan, explains, “Healthy boundaries are a rare commodity, and the internet exacerbates problems accompanying poor ones.” When you’re asked a highly personal question, she advises you respond with, “I need to think about that,” or, as she says, “mirror the question, slowing things down, which is a huge benefit.”
I used this advice recently while speaking about my book on a Zoom call from Germany with the American International Women’s Club of Düsseldorf and attendees from around the globe, including from Paris, Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and Copenhagen—something I couldn’t have dreamt of before the pandemic. “You’re asking how to talk to someone who may be suicidal? Is that correct?” I mirrored. The irony is that I felt it was my most useful talk yet, but Germans are exceptionally private when addressing such subjects, so it wasn’t recorded. (That’s one way to limit exposure!)
Barbara Larew-Adams, a therapist in Greencastle, Pennsylvania who specializes in trauma and other disorders, suggests discussing things beforehand with a trusted friend or family member. Then, before you engage with the internet at large, consider asking yourself “Who is my audience? Am I open to any feedback that I’m going to receive?”
When we share vulnerable or risky life details, “Be mindful that you may get feedback from those who do not know you nor have your best interest at heart,” Larew-Adams says, “since the internet can be highly impersonal and such responses aren’t rooted in a caring connection, people can say cruel things with seeming disregard for how it lands.”
I’m grateful that hasn’t happened with my book, which addresses depression and addiction as illnesses, as well as reducing the stigma around getting mental help. When my book came out, I announced it on Facebook, which generated a lot of interest.
I talked about Facebook with Gennie Gebhart, who is the activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and specializes in privacy issues. There are all kinds of social features and targeted advertising that people often don’t understand. “Everything from Facebook to payment platforms push you to be ’social,’ even in settings when that’s actually really antisocial behavior,” she explains. However, if you have 10 different accounts, devices, and identities, and the companies can discern how to recognize those as belonging to you, “now their job of tracking your every move to figure out why you might want to buy or click on [something] has gotten easier.” It’s important to remember that “the system works actively against efforts to protect your privacy and maintain different identities online, no matter how smart and tech-savvy you are,” Gebhart warns.
I was thinking about how useful Facebook is for my work when Gebhart told me that many people “don’t know that one company, Meta, owns Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp. As Meta pushes people to link those different accounts, the big danger is that they each use completely different identities: Facebook requires using your ‘authentic name,’ Instagram a pseudonym or handle, and WhatsApp your phone number. There are a lot of good reasons for people to want to keep those separate even if the company is nudging you to merge them. And that’s just one example of a company urging you to share more of yourself that you might have intended, to their benefit.”
So what should an average person eager to protect their privacy (but still interested in communicating online) do? First, say no to prompts demanding you link your accounts to different profiles and other accounts. Manage your identities on your own, and resist apps and services that want to consolidate and connect all of your accounts and services.
At the same time, there’s utility to social media, even when it comes to personal subjects. For example, when my book came out, I didn’t know spring was the most prevalent time to die by suicide, as counterintuitive as that seems. In spring, I’ll post that warning, and its explanation, on Facebook. If word gets out exponentially and it helps to save one life, then the exposure was worth it.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for free, 24-hour support from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for the Crisis Text Line. Outside the US, visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for crisis centers around the world.
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