Navigating Your Boundaries with Social Media

Written by Dr. Jeanine Swenson
mobile phone social media

One thing that I enjoy about our modern world is all of the new and interesting ways we have to communicate. As the great family therapist, Murray Bowen, once said,” Communication is always happening.” But I have noticed how much one can learn and understand about family dynamics from the way and frequency in which someone shares thoughts and feelings, especially through social media.

I ask myself a question as both a therapist and a friend when I am on Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In or other forms of social media. What do these posts tell me about the person’s boundaries, or willingness to take in and give out information? I raise this question because of the extremely large number of problem conversations I have with clients, families, and friends about conflict related to social media posting.

The term boundaries is a fairly new idea, developed by psychologists, therapists, and other doctors in the 1990s to describe the interface between what separates you from the outside world. One generally has personal boundaries and relationship boundaries. Sometimes friends or loved ones may divulge information about fairly sensitive areas through social media like politics, sexuality, or money without even realizing their boundaries. If this is a concern with someone you know, how comfortable are you addressing these items in a face-to-face conversation?

Does the person share a great deal in social media all the time? Or, are they going through a difficult time due to a personal or family trauma (i.e. - divorce, loss of a loved one or a move)? If over-posting with social media is due to the second reason, I try to give them a pass because of the challenges of loneliness, loss, or separation. Later, I may follow up with a phone call to talk privately about how they are doing.

Another challenge for me, which you may have noticed too, is that social media has developed so quickly that it seems the rules of engagement and etiquette have not been developed. For example, have you heard that WRITING IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS is generally interpreted by people as shouting? Lucky for me, I have my three adult children to tell me when I am crossing boundaries in social media, over posting, or posting unflattering photos of them that they do not like. I value and appreciate their direct feedback about my social media use most of the time and I try to be sensitive to other’s perspectives when posting on social media.

Habits on social media can also reveal a great deal about how one manages conflict in relationships, in general. The basic definition of conflict is when one person wants one thing, and another person wants something quite different. We like to think of our friendships and families as mostly loving and caring. However, all relationships have some amount of conflict and disagreement. Do you manage conflicts directly, by going to the person that you have conflict with and talking about the issue calmly and rationally? Or, do you indirectly complain to a third person to gain support and understanding for your position? Many people use a combination of direct & indirect styles, and often discuss their concerns with me in how to handle these matters during therapy.

It seems social media is here to stay and can be a good way to grow your community and connections. A thoughtful approach to boundaries and honoring the perspectives of others is crucial as we continue to learn the value, as well as pitfalls of social media. Here’s to happy relating.