Exercising Technological Self-Care: The importance of setting online boundaries

Having two young boys of my own, I have acknowledged that we now live in a technologically-dependent society: everywhere we go, we can access information and create social networks through our electronic devices – cellphones, tablets, laptops, computers, etc. The idea of being in an area with no WIFI can be devastating to some and losing our mobile devices can be as stressful as losing our wallets, cameras, calendars, and any other vital possession that we may own to keep in touch with the modern world.

On International Women’s Day, I was honoured to be asked to co-facilitate a workshop on communication, with a focus on technological boundaries and navigating through difficult conversations. So, I thought this would be an excellent opportunity to share this information for my latest blog entry.

Not only do we live in a technologically-dependent society, but we also live in a faster-paced lifestyle, where there seems to be urgency placed on everything, it seems, except for our own self-care. A common stressor that I see in my practice surrounds communicating with others through text messages, emails, and social media – more specifically, the constant need for immediate gratification and reassurance. Sometimes, the conflict that we experience within ourselves consists of our need for technology for communication and the feeling of being socially isolated, all at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong, there are several benefits, as well as, costs of using tech-based communication. From time to time, I am guilty of checking my phone at the dinner table or while spending “quality time” with my family. On one hand, technology is simply more convenient. It is accessed, or is at least accessible, by pretty much anyone who has an electronic device of some sort. Usually, we use tech-based communication when we need immediate responses without the need for face-to-face or verbal communication. Texting and emailing also allows us to “save” valuable information, which can give us documented “proof” of discussions and prevents us from having to duplicate conversations that could take more time and repetition. With more difficult content, this type of communication also gives us an opportunity to organize and edit our thoughts, whereas in face-to-face conversations, once our words come out of our mouth, we can never take them back. And in these situations, it simply gives us our convenient and avoidant “out”; we can send a impersonal sentence or two to someone and put our device away and try to forget about it – forever.

On the other hand, using tech-based communication eliminates a vital part of social interaction: the non-verbal cues. When we read an email or a text, we cannot hear the person’s tone of voice or see their facial expressions. Admittedly, emojis, while helpfully entertaining, can be misleading. In my practice, I have seen an increase in the prevalence of social anxiety, especially among my younger clients, possibly because tech-based communication has made face-to-face conversations anxiety-provoking and, sometimes, terrifying. There is an increased difficulty in reading social cues and navigating through conversations with peers. In addition to facial expressions, reading text can also lead to a risk of being misunderstood. A simple change in punctuation can change the entire message. If I respond to your invite to coffee with an emphatic “Sure!”, you may interpret this as excitement. However, if I respond with a “Sure.”, you may see this is a sign of irritation. And, if I respond with a “Sure…”, you may read this as indecisiveness and an ongoing conversation that may require more incentive.

Slide from “Communication in the 20s…and Beyond” – International Women’s Day Retreat, Halton Hills Women in Business

Regardless of the costs and benefits, we choose to use tech-based communication more readily and, with some, it can be difficult to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries for our own self-preservation and stress levels. Although it is extremely important, how do we do this, especially our friendships and employment may depend on it?

Here are a few suggestions that my colleague and I encourage our clients to do when they are feeling overwhelmed. When practiced regularly, it can be an empowering experience, especially in situations where we may feel that we are losing control over our relationships or our ability to use our voices.

  1. Some conversations are just not meant for tech-based forums. The “3 text quota” is basically recognizing that if the conversation that we are having is likely to require more than 3 texts going back and forth, it may be more beneficial for it to occur face-to-face or in a telephone call (you remember those, right? Those are when we actually SPEAK to people…with our voices!). These conversations may be more serious in nature or may just need immediate resolution rather than having to wait for the other person to find the time to respond.
  2. The “24 hour rule” can be used in both receiving and responding messages. This does not have to be 24 hours – it can be one hour, two hours, whatever you feel would be best. The main point of this rule is reducing the urgency and immediacy of communicating with others when the conversation may be stressful or difficult. Think about the last time you heard your email or text chime. How did it make you feel? Did you feel excitement or joy? Or did you feel dread, annoyance, and frustration? If it was more of the latter, you may need to employ this rule! Basically, it is the practice of reminding ourselves that we don’t HAVE to read the message or respond to it right away, especially if we feel an immediate rise in negative emotions. If we do choose to read and respond immediately, we risk the possibility of increasing our stress levels and responding from a place of high emotion rather than giving ourselves the opportunity to de-escalate and respond with more self-awareness.
  3. Blocking or muting numbers or profiles can be helpful with those that elicit stress and are connected with negative patterns of communication. This does not have to be a permanent boundary. For some reason, we recognize when we are triggered by texts, emails or social media profiles. Yet, we continue to gravitate towards them, checking them over and over again and feeling worse and worse. One of the most difficult things that younger clients have found to do is block people who historically say negative things about or to them, mainly because they “need to know” what is being said, even if they realize that it makes them feel insecure or hurt.
Slide from “Communication in the 20s…and Beyond” – International Women’s Day Retreat, Halton Hills Women in Business

These strategies may seem impossible, or at least really, really hard to exercise. But consider this: setting these boundaries can inform others that our time is valuable as well. I will get back to you when I am ready and not any time sooner. It allows us to regain some control over our relationships and express ourselves in a way that it honest, respectful and empathetic. It protects us from feeling hurt or angry. It allows us to find resolutions that are constructive and communicate assertively rather than aggressively or passively. Boundaries are important in all aspects of our social existence. And we need to adapt and extend these boundaries to our technologically-based interactions.

Suggested Readings:

10-tips-for-setting-boundaries-online (Psych Central)

For more information about my counselling services in Georgetown/Brampton and Orangeville, Ontario, please visit my Services page or Contact page.

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