Building Safe Spaces on the Internet
The Internet, and social media in particular (where social comparison runs rampant), is linked to floundering self-esteem, decreased mental well-being, social anxiety, and depressive symptoms (Dibb, 2019). The flip side is that positive interactions online can promote feelings of inclusion, create a sense of community, and improve mental well-being. The key is discovering which online groups are the best fit for you and understanding the shared responsibility we all have in keeping these spaces safe for ourselves and others.
So in honour of Safer Internet Day, let’s talk about the positive: how our modern conveniences can actually help us feel connected in a healthy way.
Because let’s face it, for better or for worse, the internet is here to stay. And our online behaviours influence the way we shop, eat, date, watch movies, research, and stay connected with friends and family. Today, 1998’s quintessential internet rom-com “You’ve Got Mail” looks amusingly dated (what’s a dial-up modem when we’ve got tiny wireless computers in our pockets?) and Gen Z, those born between the mid-90s to the early 2000s are often referred to as true “digital natives,” having never known life without the Internet.
The Internet was invented to make things easier, more efficient, and to connect people with one another. And while it’s gotten a bad rap over the years, its original intent remains the same today.
Niche groups can find solace and friendship online
With issues as complex and serious as these, it would be over-simplifying to say the Internet alone is the solution. But when it comes to making people feeling less lonely, and creating safe spaces—environments where like-minded people can feel empowered to discuss specific topics without being ridiculed or harassed—it’s an interesting proposition. Specialized Facebook groups and niche corners of Reddit can attest that there’s truly a space for everyone; there are always people to connect with who are facing similar challenges. But what if we sense that those challenges are getting to be too much for someone around us?
Everyone is responsible for building safe spaces
This is where things get really complex: how do we keep people that are in apparent distress safe? Distressed individuals can often turn to social networks to express their feelings, and sometimes it can be hard to distinguish a true cry for help. And who is responsible for responding to such a cry? The online platform? Or you as a contributor to it?
The first thing you can do is to be aware by recognizing certain behaviours that demonstrate someone may not be doing well. The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention shares the following warning signs of suicide:
Source: Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention
While these signs may be tougher to recognize online, if you see a post dealing with these topics (for example, including phrases like “I wish I could disappear”, “I want to end this all”, “The world would be a better place without me”), there are ways that you can take action.
Thanks to global communities like Facebook and Instagram, it’s easier than ever to do this: both platforms have implemented safety features into the user experience that help users flag worrying posts, and offer resources and ways to connect with loved ones to at-risk people. If you would prefer to reach out directly, or you’re on another platform and you’re concerned about someone’s posts, reach out—there’s no substitute for human empathy and letting people know you care. Experts at the Canadian Mental Health Association say the two most important things you can do in such a situation is listen and connect the person with mental health services, such as a local crisis organization (Distress Centre Calgary is a good example).
At the end of the day, it takes a joint effort—we all need to look out for each other. A community is only as strong as the sum of its parts, and we all have a role to play to create safer digital spaces.
Places you can go to find a safe space on the InternetIf you feel like you might need a space to connect with other people, or want to direct someone who may be struggling to helpful resources, try:
- A mental health app: Every day, as an alternative to traditional therapy, new apps are making their way onto the market to address mental health concerns like depression, anxiety and more. Try Headspace, Youper, Pacifica, Calm or Moodpath—or take a look through your app store to find one that suits you best.
- Reddit: A digital discussion forum-based platform where you can find support for mental health, overcoming life’s obstacles, LGBTQ-specific challenges, fitness tips for people with disabilities, and many, many more. Try a search for every topic imaginable, and you’re sure to find a community that’s right for you.
- A group chat with trusted friends: Being socially-connected is one way to get support and lift your mood. Bonus: you don’t have to change out of your pajamas or even leave the comfort of your own couch. How about saying, “There’s something I’ve been struggling with and I’d love to get your thoughts on it”?
- Distress Centre Calgary online chat: This free, confidential chat service is available from 3:00-10:00pm on weekdays and 12:00-10:00pm on weekends. No crisis is too big or small. Start a chat to speak to highly-trained volunteers and professional staff about any mental health concern.
- 211 online chat: Another free, confidential chat service, ready to connect you with community-based health and social services. It’s available from 12:00-8:00pm every day. Start a chat for assistance in stressful situations and referrals to local supports and services.