People behaving badly on social media is nothing new. From Kim Kardashian’s birthday vacation posts while hanging out on a private island amid a pandemic, to that guy from your old high school’s Instagram pics of his unmasked family reunion during winter break (there’s always one — just check your feed), to the live-streamed posts of the domestic terrorists that stormed the U.S. Capitol just this week, it’s clear that there’s often questionable social media judgment from many users. But is sharing bad or controversial behavior simply a mistake made by a few tone-deaf individuals? Or are most people simply looking to get a rise in whatever way they can? What is driving so many people to post things they know will likely end up garnering negative reactions?
“Simply stated, attention,” Andrew Levander, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Pasadena, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. “Almost all of us are predisposed to needing or wanting attention. Attention is tied to esteem and esteem leads to feelings of belonging. [But] some people may ask, ‘at what cost do I want to belong?’"
Levander, who is also Executive Director and Chief Clinical Officer of Seven Star Recovery, New Road Center and Licasa Treatment Center, says this attention-seeking behavior may be rooted in a number of places, from jealousy to self-esteem or even loneliness.
“Even people who one would never imagine struggle with low self-esteem, loneliness or jealousy, desire and even crave at times the attention of others,” says Levander.
Bridgit Dengel Gaspard, an LCSW and author of The Final 8th: Enlist Your Inner Selves to Accomplish Your Goals, feels similarly.
“Social media is a perfect platform for highlighting different aspects of ourselves, including the ones that contribute to provocative public behavior,” says Dengel Gaspard, whose private practice is based in New York City. “Radical selves may crave controversial content to express something shocking, other times biased selves may aim to offend certain groups.”
Gaspard says many individuals are simply predisposed to seeking attention in quantity–and sometimes over quality. These people may include narcissists, trauma survivors, and others who have been conditioned to measure their self-worth via how many likes, shares, and followers they gain.
“They mistakenly think they’re going to satisfy their bottomless need for validation, admiration and approval and in their frustration and desperation, may intensify the negativity of their postings such as denying an election result,” says Gaspard. She warns that through this behavior, the individuals can strongly impact their safety and stress levels.
But that’s not always the case, of course. Gaspard says there are indeed some individuals who simply take pleasure in posting outrageous things. This is likely the driving force behind the phenomenon of “internet trolls.”
So why is it that many other individuals resist the urge to post bad or controversial behavior?
“First, fear of appraisal,” says Levander. That is, being judged (sometimes harshly, sometimes justifiably) may prevent many from behaving in such ways. “Second, for those people whose esteem is not generated by the approval of others, there is not a pull towards living publicly.” Levander also feels that for those who are seeking to belong, the fear of not belonging (after posting something they may be strongly judged for, especially if it’s something that’s seen as “bad” by a vocal majority) may cause them to be more cautious.
“Those with a healthy skepticism, or with a sound sense of themselves and their long-term goals, are able to access an overview of potential repercussions, possibly a decade away, before hitting send,” adds Gaspard. “They habitually proceed with ‘posting caution’ to avoid unintentional repercussions,” she says.
Levander reminds us, though, that it’s nearly impossible to always do and say the right thing. This means that even unintentionally, many of us may end up posting something that others may find “bad” or “problematic.”
“Whether in person or online we can't help but to be ourselves and in a world that lives online more and more, we bring our clumsiness wherever we go,” he says.
Overall, if you’re getting negative attention for your posts (especially ones in which you may be breaking important rules, such as mask-wearing and distancing in a pandemic), you may want to think twice before hitting the post button. It’s a new year, and it’s never too late to be more intentional with how you use social media.
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