The most common boundary people are looking to create is a limit to how much of our personal information other people can access. Unsurprisingly, the best way to create these sorts of barriers would be through increasing your privacy settings. Keeping your Twitter and Instagram on private, changing your Facebook privacy settings to ensure strangers cannot contact you, and creating separate emails or social media accounts for work versus your social life are all good ways to create these barriers.
But privacy settings can’t help create the emotional boundaries many people find are necessary, like the need we all feel to respond to messages right away or to check a notification as soon as it appears on our screens. Many experts say that removing push notifications from your home screen or deleting social media from your phone for certain periods of time can not only lessen feelings of dependency when it comes to the internet but can also improve sleep, reduce anxiety, and help people reprioritize in-person interactions.
“People often talk to me about a sense of obligation that they feel online,” explains Sadler. “Often, understandably, we feel like because we’re putting ourselves out there to a degree, we’re obligated to accept a friend request on Facebook or return a message to someone that is a stranger to us. It’s important to establish the degree to which we are willing to participate in that early on in our interactions online.”
Of course, creating these sorts of boundaries can be more difficult for some than for others. Many people use social media not just for fun, but for their job — and when your income relies on your ability to brand and commodify yourself online, separating your real life from the one that plays out online becomes a lot more difficult.
“If I didn’t have the jobs I have, I would throw my phone into the river and never get on social media again,” says editor and social media consultant Rachel Charlene Lewis. “I don’t want to be on there. I’m on there for capitalist reasons. My boundary is in knowing that my full self exists in certain spaces, and that few of those are digital.”
Why are people different online?
I’ll be the first to admit it: I am nothing like my online self. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I am catfishing my followers, but I will say that I feel an incessant need to curate my aesthetic and identity online. As a young liberal woman of color, there are certain expectations and standards when it comes to upholding that aesthetic: liberal, but palatably so; black, but not to a point where it becomes intimidating; and outspoken about political issues, but in a way that is also funny and relatable. We subconsciously impose these boundaries on ourselves and on each other, using these criteria to determine who we follow, what content we like and retweet, and how we construct our online selves.
Extensive research demonstrates the ways that people’s real-life personalities often differ from their online personas, according to a 2015 article by The Guardian. Because people have the luxury of being completely satisfied with something before they press send on a photo or witty tweet, people are often more emboldened on the Internet, feeling protected by the barrier of a screen. “People often put the fantasy version of themselves online—the one they want to be or the one they want to sell,” Jacqueline Donelli, a licensed medical health counselor, tells Allure. “On the internet, we are who we want others to think we are.”
Lewis can certainly attest to this sentiment. “I am not at all who I am online,” she says. “It’s not like I’m lying when I’m online: I really am very gay; I really do cry over Steven Universe; I really am just now learning how to drive. But me online is me online. Not everyone wants everything about themselves to be public-facing, and I think we need to get more comfortable with that idea.”