Tag Archives: internet harassment

Why Social Media Is NOT The New Tobacco

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It’s a full-blown crisis. Kids are spending hours upon hours using it. They’re becoming mindless, unmotivated zombies. Every day, it’s getting worse. It’s all around them. There’s no escaping it and if something drastic isn’t done, it’ll corrupt an entire generation beyond repair.

No, that’s not some hysterical rant from Jessica Lovejoy on “The Simpsons.” It’s not referring to smartphones or social media, either. That urgent message was referring to television. This isn’t another one of my thought experiments. This is one of my memories. It’s true. Televisions was a real concern when I was a kid. Some called it a full blown health hazard.

If that sounds strange, then chances are you aren’t old enough to remember a time before the internet was the ultimate addiction. It really existed. It makes me and many others in my cohort feel old, but it happened. When I was a kid still in grade school, especially between first and sixth grade, the internet wasn’t the thing destroying kids. It was television.

That memory I mentioned wasn’t unique. It came courtesy of an assembly my school held. I don’t entirely remember the purpose of the assembly. I was just a kid and it was an excuse to get out of class. What I do remember, though, was the common refrain about the dangers of television.

Adults of all kinds would find creative ways to tell us to stop watching television and do something “productive,” which I took to mean more homework, more chores, and anything else my teachers made me do. It didn’t really appeal to me and I don’t think it changed the TV habits of my peers, either.

That panic, while nowhere nearly as extreme as the Satanic Panic of the 80s, came and went like many moral crusades tend to do. Some are just forgotten, but others just evolve into a whole new panic. That seems to be happening with the internet and social media now. Watching TV is actually in decline among younger cohorts while their usage of the internet and social media is increasing.

I imagine those same teachers who bemoaned the impact of TV when I was a kid would be giving similar lectures on social media now. They would have competition too because parents today worry about their kids’ internet usage more than their drug usage. Some go so far as to call it the new tobacco to belabor its damaging and addictive nature.

While that kind of comparison strikes all the right emotional chords with concerned parents, I think it’s an unfit comparison to say the least. At most, I would call it absurd. The memories of all those warnings about the dangers of TV leave me inherently skeptical of anything that’s allegedly poisoning children. Unless it’s actual poison, I think the tobacco comparisons are premature.

Now, there’s no question that the internet and social media are having an impact on young people, old people, and everyone in between. There are documented cases where people have exhibited addictive behaviors surrounding their internet usage. Before you make any nicotine comparisons, though, keep in mind that people can be addicted to all sorts of weird things. The human mind is just that strange, powerful, and flawed.

Tobacco, and the nicotine it delivers, is an outside chemical that enters the brain and has real, measurable effects. Using the internet, whether you’re checking FaceBook or browsing Instagram, is not like that. That’s why internet addiction is not in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that legitimate doctors use to diagnose addiction, but substance abuse is.

It’s also why porn addiction is not considered a true addiction, which I’ve talked about before. However, porn is more specific in its purpose and its effects. There’s also still a stigma, albeit a damaging one, surrounding it that sets it apart from the rest of the internet. A kid browsing the internet, for the most part, is no less damaging than watching cartoons on TV all day.

That doesn’t stop a growing number of people from expressing sincere concern about the effects it’s having on their minds and their health. Some may even prefer that their kids watch old Hanna Barbara cartoons rather than tweet, text, and live-stream all day. There’s a growing sentiment that the internet, social media in particular, hacks our brain’s rewards system.

On paper, it makes sense. You pick up your smart phone, you turn it on not knowing what to expect, and if you find something you like, you get a quick release of pleasure chemicals like dopamine and endorphins. It’s basically a form of gambling. A slot machine works the same way, but you don’t need to be a high roller to enjoy the gambling-like thrill.

Like so many other ideas on paper that go onto fail, though, it’s nowhere near that simple. The human brain can’t be that crude with its chemistry. As a good rule of thumb, if you ever hear someone other than a legitimate neurologist talks about the effects of dopamine on pleasure or addiction, chances are they have a very limited understanding of it at best.

While dopamine does play a role in how we experience pleasure, that’s just one part of a wide range of functions it has within our brains. Trying to understand addiction through dopamine alone is like trying to bake a cake with only a teaspoon of flour. There are many more chemicals, processes, and interactions at play.

Using social media may offer its users a rush whenever they get exciting news on their feed or see something that intrigues and/or offends them, but our brain processes that in a way fairly similar to anything else that catches our attention. The primary difference with the internet and social media is that it happens solely through a digital screen and that does somewhat limit those reactions.

I know that undercuts the concerns of parents who think the internet permanently damaging the collective psyche of their children, but I think they’re overestimating the influence of things that are experienced solely through a screen. Much like TV, the internet and social media can only effect so many senses and that is a major mitigating factor in its impact.

To understand that, go find a picture or video of an exotic location. If you’re a heavy user of Instagram, chances are that won’t be too hard. Look at those pictures. Watch that video. Take in the sights and sounds of that location. To your brain, it’s an appealing bit of visual and auditory sensations. However, those are the only two senses it stimulates.

What about the smell of the air, the feeling of the wind, and the sense of place that being in those locations evokes in our brains? Even if you experience it through hyper-realistic virtual reality, it’s still just sights and sounds at most. Thinking that alone is enough to damage a kid’s brain is like thinking someone can win a sword fight with a sewing needle.

That’s not to say the internet and social media can’t have a powerful psychological impact on certain people. That’s the key, though. It impacts certain people the same way TV impacts certain people. Sure, there are documented cases where social media played a role in a major tragedy, but those are the exceptions and not the norms.

In the same way not everyone gets addicted to a drug after they try it, not everyone is going to be irreparably damaged by the internet, social media, or TV. There’s a reason why extreme cases of people being heavily influenced by these things makes the news in the first place. It’s exceedingly rare.

I would still make the case that the internet and social media are more influential on people, society, and our culture than TV ever was. By being so hyper-connected to such a wide audience, the professional trolls of the world have a way to effect others in a way that just wasn’t possible, even with TV.

As bad as some of those trolls are and as tragic as it is when some suffer because of them, blaming the internet for those ills is like blaming umbrellas for hurricanes. Lumping it in with cancer-causing drugs only further obscures the real issues associated with the ever-evolving internet.

There are, indeed, serious issues with how people use the internet and how it manifests. However, treating it like a dangerous drug did nothing to address the issues surrounding TV. It’ll do just as little in addressing the various controversies of the internet. Until the next “new tobacco” comes along, those same people who lectured me on too much TV will bemoan the dangers of the internet while ignoring all the good it does.

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Filed under Current Events, human nature, media issues, psychology

The Lessons (And Misguided Agendas) Of The Harvey Weinstein Scandals

I promise I’m going to stop talking about the Harvey Weinstein scandal at some point. I know everyone is probably sick of it. Make no mistake, I’m sick of writing about it. Unfortunately, it’s one of those issues that grows way beyond its original context.

It’s not enough to highlight the sheer breadth of the transgressions committed by such a powerful man. It just has to be part of a larger issue that brings out the best and worst of all those eager to comment on it, myself included. Never mind the fact that Weinstein is being punished severely for his many transgressions. People just have to make it part of a much larger agenda, and not necessarily for the right reasons.

It’s that component of this tragedy/crime/outrage that compels me to keep talking about it. Make no mistake, I’d much rather be talking about resolving love triangles in superhero comics and products made specifically for female breasts. However, I see the massive uproar over the Harvey Weinstein affair as entering dangerous territory.

Now, I don’t deny the good that this scandal has inspired. Sexual assault is a serious crime and powerful men like Weinstein have too long a history of getting away with it. In a just and peaceful society, these kinds of crimes shouldn’t be overlooked. That said, there’s a big difference between pursuing justice and a misguided moral panic.

To provide some context, there’s plenty of recent history that should provide some perspective to the ongoing outrage. Back in the 1990s, before hashtags and dick pics, there was a huge outrage over the impact of violent video games and the role they played in mass shootings like Columbine.

Never mind the fact that there’s no established causal link between violent video games and actual violence. Never mind the fact that all available data has shown an overall decrease in violence over the past several decades. The moral panic allowed people with agendas to pursue those agendas to the utmost, even when the truth isn’t on their side.

This brings me back to sexual crimes committed by men like Harvey Weinstein. What he did was egregious. What he did to his victims, if even half-true, warrants full prosecution to the utmost. Unlike the panic over violent video games, this issue involves real people who were subjected to real harassment. That’s beyond dispute.

Unfortunately, the media, the public, and everyone with a Twitter handle aren’t content to just ensure that Weinstein faces justice for his crimes. They just have to turn it into a kind of rallying cry that exposes the depths of misogyny, corruption, and abuse. It happened with video games in 2014. Now, it’s happening again.

It’s getting dangerous because people who express concern about the implications of taking every accusation of sexual assault seriously are being labeled sexist, misogynist monsters. Like many moral panics before it, there comes a point where anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the panic is guilty of thought crimes that deserve the kind of scorn that even George Orwell would find excessive.

We’re already seeing this happen as everyone gets in line to voice their outrage and virtue signal, accordingly. In wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, everyone seems eager to become the hero in the battle against powerful men abusing vulnerable women. I’ve mentioned before how that kind of mentality is dangerous and misguided. We’re seeing a similar mentality emerge as everyone seeks to push their agenda.

Among those pushing that agenda include our friends at Cracked.com, a website I usually enjoy and often cite on this blog. They’ve already jumped at the chance to push an agenda, conflating the Harvey Weinstein scandal as an indictment of all men who ever dared to lust after a pretty woman.

It’s not just websites like Cracked either. There’s already a hashtag on Twitter called #MeeToo that has people recounting their experiences with sexual harassment and sexual assault. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of these stories that are both disturbing and true. However, there is a context to consider.

Sexual assault is a crime. It’s prosecuted like a crime. Like all crime, there are standards by which to process it. Chief among those standards is evidence. Those voicing outrage over the fact that neither Weinstein, nor Bill Cosby, are being charged with a crime is seen as a failure of justice. However, there’s another point to consider.

Sexual assault is hard to prove. So much of the evidence relies on testimony and in a court of law, that often gets conflated with anecdotal evidence. Science has revealed, time and again, that eyewitness testimony is among the least reliable forms of evidence you can have. Without better evidence, the high burden of proof that comes with a justice system that presumes innocence takes over.

In a sense, I can understand why those lamenting over men like Weinstein are so furious. It is frustrating to think that a man can commit such crimes against women and get away with it. In that frustration, things like facts and context tend to lose meaning.

I still don’t doubt that men like Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly are guilty of making life miserable for women. However, the extent and veracity of that misery is hard to quantify. The fact that they haven’t been charged with sexual assault tells me that the evidence just isn’t strong enough, even if it occurred. Where the justice system fails, though, mobs of hate and disdain will fill the gaps.

While that can help the voices of victims, it can also be dangerous. It can, in some respects, drown itself by claiming everything is harassment, everything is sexist, and everything is some sort of agenda to silence women. People want to believe that they’re Superman and men like Harvey Weinstein are the Lex Luthors of the world.

At some point, though, outrage burns itself out. Our collective capacity for emotional catharsis has its limits. Once it reaches that limit, we start rolling our eyes and become numb to it. For something as serious as sexual assault, we cannot and should not let that happen.

That’s a challenge, though, when everybody is so eager to virtue signal and ally themselves with the so-called right side of history. By over-blowing the outrage, victims of true sexual assault get lumped in with those who just didn’t like the person flirting with them.

Since harassment is so subjective and some people are more sensitive to it than others, the context will often get skewed. However, a scandal like Harvey Weinstein provides a sense of clarity on an issue that is so frustratingly subjective.

Therein lies the issue, though. Harassment, unlike assault, is subjective. Sexual assault is not. One is an emotional reaction. The other involves real, physical harm. Conflating one with the other is a dangerous precedent that will make people more reluctant to interact. As a fan of love, intimacy, and sexy novels, that’s not a world I want to live in.

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Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, gender issues

A Quick Guide To Dealing With Internet Trolls

The late, great Benjamin Franklin once said, “[I]n this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” That little pearl of wisdom has held up remarkably well over the years, especially when democrats are in charge or when despots need more money for their gold-plated toilet seats.

However, if Mr. Franklin were alive today, he’d have to amend that quote in a very specific way. While it’s still true that the only certainty is death and taxes, there is one other inescapable force that makes even the forces of nature tremble. It’s a force so powerful that it can reduce the best of us into wounded puppies begging for a band-aid.

What is this force, you ask? Get ready to embrace the horror because it will affect us moving forward. In fact, it’ll affect us more and more as the pace of technological advancement accelerates. It conjures dread, fear, annoyance, and frustration. It is the ultimate shit stain of the internet and technology in general. They are the true beasts of the 21st century.

Yes, I’m talking about Internet Trolls.

I’ll give everyone a moment to either cringe in horror or roll their eyes. Some of us have experience with internet trolls. Some of us may have even done our share of trolling in the past, although we’ll never admit in public that it qualified as trolling. Like a kid trying to get out of chores, we’ll make any excuse not to be associated with this horror. That doesn’t make us any less guilty of it.

I freely admit that I’ve done my share of trolling in the past. I’m not proud of it, but I’m only human. I’m passionate about a lot of things and I hope that shows in my erotica/romance novels. If it doesn’t, then I’m not doing my job.

We humans are passionate creatures. We always have been. We probably always will be on some levels, despite the efforts of movies like “Equilibrium.” It’s only recently that we’ve had a tool, namely the internet, to convey our passion all over the world about every possible subject from sports to pets to how we style our pubic hair.

I don’t consider this a bad thing. I’m not those who think the internet makes people into monsters or trolls. I believe that humans always had these sentiments to some degree. We just never had a chance to express them on a larger scale. The internet helps us reveal the breadth of our passions. There’s going to be the good and the bad. We can’t avoid either, nor should we.

So in many respects, internet trolls are like the sewer systems of a city. It smells, it’s ugly, and it’s flowing with shit, but it needs to be there. It needs to function for the city to function. You can whine about it all you want, and some people do, but you can’t escape it.

If we can’t escape it, then how do we deal with it? How do we deal with these digital demons that attempt to suck the fun out of anything and everything we hold dear? It’s actually easier than you think, at least for the non-famous population. For the famous crowd, it’s a little trickier, but not by much.

Since I can’t relate to famous people that much, I’ll stick to what I know before I dare to speculate. I’ve been on the internet for over 20 years and I’ve seen it grow and evolve, from the early AOL days to the fall of MySpace. In that time, I’ve picked up on a few techniques to combat internet trolls. Here are just a few:

  1. Assume there will be trolls wherever there’s an opportunity and don’t get overly upset when they show up
  2. Never assume a troll is being one hundred percent sincere, nor should you assume that the troll is one hundred percent knowledgeable either
  3. A troll that makes threats is serious, but a troll actually carrying out these threats is exceedingly rare so keep that in mind
  4. Above all, deny the troll any and all forms of attention or reactions, as this is the primary fuel in which a troll operates
  5. Apathy is the most potent weapon against internet trolls

There are probably more techniques that are unique to certain situations. There’s probably a whole host of tips and tricks to deal with certain trolls that go to much greater lengths to harass others. Those cases aren’t typical.

How can I be so sure of this? Again, apply a little caveman logic and it’s obvious. Human beings have a lot of remarkable mental and physical traits, breasts and balls being some of the most notable. However, when it comes to our attention span, human beings are incredibly lacking.

The average human attention span is not that great and some even argue (albeit not very effectively) that it’s shrinking due to technology. A troll operates at the very basic of levels in terms of human capacity. That means a troll’s attention span should not be overestimated. The internet is full of so many distractions, cat videos being just one of them. A troll that doesn’t get a reaction isn’t going to stay interested for very long.

In the end, the greatest weapon that any of us can use against internet trolls is apathy. That is a troll’s ultimate kryptonite. When a troll goes to such great lengths to harass and demean, but earns nothing but a blank gaze in the end, it’s downright toxic. Their brains simply cannot process why they are wasting time and energy that could be better spent hunting for tigers and seeking fertile mates. It’s caveman logic at its finest.

This is a sentiment echoed by those who have a somewhat larger social media presence. Being a lifelong comic book fan, I frequent comic book message boards and social media. I see a lot of trolling, to say the least. Comic book fans are a passionate bunch, as we learned during the Avengers: Age of Ultron controversy surrounding Black Widow.

This leads me to Tom Brevoort, an accomplished editor at Marvel and a genuinely interesting guy. I’ve met him in person at comic cons. He’s great at what he does and the way he deals with fans is nothing short of astonishing. A couple years back, he responded to a question that effectively proves my point.

When Mr. Brevoort was asked, “What does Marvel fear more? Angry fans or apathetic fans?” he responded as follows:

“Apathetic fans, definitely. When fans are angry, we’re selling comics.”

That’s a refreshing bit of honesty from someone who often has to be coy about his business. It also emphasizes the power of apathy, both in terms of dealing with trolls and dealing with public visibility. That saying about there being no such thing as bad publicity is somewhat accurate, but it’s incomplete in that it ignores how human passions operate.

So with that in mind, use these techniques whenever necessary. If you’re a celebrity, it may be somewhat trickier because internet trolls can sometimes turn into dangerous stalkers, which is an entirely different problem that I’m not equipped to deal with. For those like me, who are a long way away from being famous, this should help make your internet experience more tolerable.

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Filed under Jack Fisher's Insights