In a world where social networks are springing up like weeds it’s a case of learn as you go. You learn to navigate the sites, see what they do, if they suit you, what they are primarily used for. What no one seems to tell you about is boundaries, how to set them and what to do if they are breached. Everyone has their own limits as to how they want to be treated both on and off line. What is acceptable to some is far too much for others. Some people don’t think it’s acceptable for close family such as parents and grandparents to “friend” you on Facebook or follow you on Twitter. Others are so close to their families that to not have them present on their list of friends or followers would feel wrong.
Some people, myself included, don’t show phone numbers or email addresses. I don’t show my real name, instead I use an alias. I know some people who are quite happy with all their details on display. I know of one person who thinks that they are being discreet but, via the 4 Square site which displays information as you move around from location to location, they display their work place, their home address and where their child spends his or her recreational time.
So how do we set boundaries and how do we enforce them? One person, who works as a counsellor, told me this: “…there has been an internal change within me, because I’ve learned to respect that my time is precious too. (And I’ve acknowledged that I can’t help everyone, however much I may want to.) But I’ve also begun making an external expression of this change – by being clear upfront about what I can realistically give someone.
For example I will say I’m happy to help with general guidance etc regarding counselling, but I can’t get into discussing specific personal details. I usually mention confidentiality and gently remind the person I’m not at work. This usually works. If someone is really persistent I will remind them that there may be more appropriate places to take this. Ultimately I might need to be prepared to unfollow / block someone but as yet this hasn’t happened.
I do find it difficult and people do pull on my heart strings sometimes, but ultimately I’m no good to anyone if I don’t look after myself and that has helped me be more robust with boundaries.”
I do have a problem with people overstepping boundaries. It happens regularly and I’ve been told it’s because I’m friendly, that I appear to be open and revealing more than I seem to be. A large amount of my life is in the public domain because of the role I’ve played as a media speaker on mental health issues. Whilst doing that I do reveal my illness, the current state of it and my opinions on welfare reform etc. What I don’t say are the things I say to friends in private conversations or those things kept firmly within the private messaging systems of social networks. Some people still feel willing to believe that they know me better than they do and, like it or not, this removes some boundaries no matter how hard I try to keep them in place.
I spent a period of time as a moderator on a mental health forum and I was stalked by one of the members there. A woman with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) chatted to me and, being the person I am, I chatted back and made her welcome. I was called to moderate an argument that she was having with another member and told them both to stop. Then the abuse began. She sent me message after message declaring I’d let her down, that she thought of me as her best friend and that I was no better than all the other people that had let her down. I later found out that this was symptomatic of BPD and that because of her disorder she had read far more into the “friendship” than was actually there. She sent messages to other members, including moderators, which caused great unrest on the forum and it got to a point where another moderator began to abuse me and to accuse me of creating the situation to get rid of his friend. Had it stopped there then I could have handled it alone.
She tracked me across cyberspace. She looked at my Facebook page and relayed the details to the forum without mentioning my name. She quoted my tweets from Twitter. She followed me to a local forum with less than 100 members and left public messages on there telling me she was going to turn up at functions I was attending. My local police took it very seriously and worked with the force in her area to stop her. The mental health forum refused to act saying that they saw it as a disagreement. In the weeks that followed it became impossible for me to stay as a member of that forum.
Not everyone that crosses boundaries has a mental health problem of course, in fact she is the only person I’ve personally come across.
It’s the smaller things I find difficult to cope with. Coming across as a nice person seems to encourage people to push boundaries. Some men seem to think it’s fine that, if you say hello to them, they can make sexual insinuations and that you won’t mind. These are men that wouldn’t say hello to a woman in the street let alone flirt with them in an overtly sexual manner. It appears that times that the perception of single women on social networking sites is that they’re looking for sex. One woman thought it great to call me “mental” because I have Bipolar Disorder (BD) but expected me to treat her like fine china because she was overweight.
As a community activist working at quite a high level for a number of years you learn pretty quickly that you will never get thanked for what you do. You will be criticized by people who think they can do what you do but aren’t willing to do it. Some people will openly abuse you especially if, like me, your closest associates are the police. People resent what they perceive as power whilst failing to realize that they also have that power.
So perhaps that’s what lies at the root of the problem. People cross boundaries to try and take something that they see as an admirable quality, something they desire. You can learn from someone but you can’t steal their qualities, that’s a boundary no one will ever be able to cross.