Amongst users of the Internet who harmlessly like too many Instagram posts of women flaunting their beauty or those who have invested a little too much time and money in bitcoin stand the chronically online, those with desensitized world views and harmful platforms. The former pale in comparison to the harmful effects spurring from this subsection of the Internet. Definitions vary regarding the chronically online, some utilizing words like cancel culture and others emphasizing a lack of real-world experience. Most often denoted as individuals who spend such large amounts of time on the internet that they’ve come to hold what is commonly viewed as skewed values, the chronically online might be a larger group than first anticipated. 

How does one fall over the edge of the Internet and become a member of this contested online group? It is a phenomenon that has no age or location restriction, preying on the solitude found in Internet users. Often resulting from feelings of social exclusion, self-fulfilling information feedback loops found across practically all social media platforms cause cycles of instant gratification, or rather what feels like a rush of dopamine each time a bias we hold is confirmed. Our feeds are filled with content specifically curated for our beliefs and value systems. You can think of an alt-right “incel” from Reddit or a “social justice warrior” from Tumblr to understand the concept of the chronically online, or you could think of yourself. 

I am rarely faced with a login screen anymore, and each time I am, my mouse drags and clicks over the “remember me” button. With how often we are online, it has become rare to log out of our accounts on personal devices, opting to keep our accounts signed in to ease the next time we want to log on again. With every new minute we spend online, algorithms collect more data to inform themselves on how to appease our content needs. Even when we believe ourselves to be average users, the types of algorithms embedded into the most popular social media websites today mean that we will see what we want to see, for better or for worse.

In what appears to be an increasing phenomenon, harmful ideologies have fallen into the common repertoire. Amongst hundreds and thousands of Twitter threads, it often feels as though the internet isn’t real. The central message of every anti-cyberbullying campaign in the last three decades has apparently been long lost. With more and more of our lives taking place online, it means that the words you say online matter. The Internet is no longer the private space it might have felt like upon its invention in the 80s, but rather a place where all your colleagues, friends, and families can read all of what you write.  

If we can flippantly share our opinions on the internet with little concern for whom will read them, we just might lose a sense of reality along the way.  

– Megan Tesch

With the online world increasingly meshing with the real world, online actions have real-world implications. Coming in contact with friends, family, and acquaintances’ posts debating the real world’s events around us can desensitize our perceptions of tragedy. When we become desensitized to horrific events, we show less empathy and compassion to those in our lives. It may be easy to spew hateful speech from behind a screen, forgetting the long-told tale that we never know what has happened in someone’s life. I can filter out certain words from my feeds or block specific tags, yet that course of action doesn’t quite solve the issue. When people log off and come back to the real world, they are not met with the same instant gratification and algorithms that mirror their belief systems.  

In the fall down a rabbit hole, people become desensitized to real-life events. The topic of death is thrown around as if it lacks any meaning, and so often the term ‘suicide’ is twisted to mean something much less grave. The online discourse surrounding almost any serious topic is littered with bias and prejudices, many of which we rarely feel we are interacting with. By using algorithm-based social media sites, you are most likely to find the same belief systems and shared values. In such environments, if we can flippantly share our opinions on the internet with little concern for whom will read them, we just might lose a sense of reality along the way.  

When you log on every day, watching the words you say is just as important as watching the way others’ words reinforce our worldviews. The harm in being chronically online comes when individuals begin lacking sensitivity and compassion in response to the other’s devastating and traumatic events. Algorithms not only work to support your biases, but they also desensitize us to some of the most horrid occurrences in the real world. If we think of Xinjiang Internment Camps operating since 2017 or the ongoing colonization on the land Queen’s is situated on, rarely is enough care brought to the conversation of death. Similarly, online discourse related to addiction or sexual assault often overlooks the fact that many viewing the discourse will be those actively impacted by the issues discussed.

This issue goes far past a shallow remark advocating for censorship, but into an understanding that with no censorship, comes the need for compassion. How we talk about events in the world matters, and the desensitization found in being chronically online is something to be cognizant of in yourself and your activity in both online and physical environments. As Internet users, we must use a critical eye regardless of whether the content we are viewing aligns with our biases. Even when it is acknowledged or not, absorbing content online comes with certain responsibilities to ourselves and those around us.

About The Author

Megan Tesch (she/her) is one of the Heads of Publishing for MUSE. She can be found with her cats, attempting to collage, or journalling her days away.

Header Image by Nanika Sandhu
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