How toxic is life online? So much that you have to fake your own death to escape it. 

That was the story of Susan Meachen, a 47-year-old homemaker and author from Benton, Tennessee. In 2020, after she had discussed her long struggles with mental health, Meachen’s Facebook page reported that she had died. In fact, the author of 14 self-published romance novels was just trying to get out of the rabbit hole of online romance writers and readers she had fallen into. 

At first, she told The New York Times, the community was “like an escape, a timeout, a break from everyday reality.” But then she describes how interacting online became like “an addiction.” She began to have more and more mental health issues and she says she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but Meachen couldn’t seem to log off. She was regularly getting into arguments with other people in the romance writing world. It eventually got to the point where her husband was worried about leaving her alone during the day. Her daughter found her semiconscious one day after she ingested too many Xanax pills. 

While her husband has said it was his idea, it was Meachen’s daughter who posted on Meachen’s website: “Author Susan Meachen left this world behind Tuesday night for bigger and better things .… Please leave us alone we have no desire (to be involved) in this messed-up industry.”

Now, three years later, Meachen is back, and her readers and fellow writers are up in arms. “I was horrified, stunned, livid and felt like I’d been kicked in the gut and the chest at the same time,” one of her fellow writers said. Others have reported her to law enforcement, claiming that she committed a cybercrime, faked her death to sell more books or used her mental illness in order to bilk people out of money. 

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Whatever the merits of these cases, it seems as if Meachen had mental health issues and being online made things worse. Online communities are often portrayed as a way for people who have eclectic interests or who lack social support to find others in similar situations. But these online interactions can also have the opposite effect, drawing people further and further into peculiar groups and reinforcing harmful ideas. 

Indeed, the fact that so many people were angry with Meachen for leaving and then returning suggests they don’t want people to open up the possibility of taking a break. As soon as they do, they might realize the futility of bitterly arguing about romance novels online.

When Meachen described this online world as “quicksand,” I thought of the adolescent girls finding transgender advocates online. As Abigail Shrier documented in her book “Irreversible Harm,” girls can watch video after video on YouTube until they become persuaded that they were born into the wrong body, that they are really boys, and that they need drugs and surgery in order to live life honestly. 

If their parents push back, Shrier said, some online activists give the girls a script to follow, explaining they should threaten self-harm if they are not allowed to transition. And then this same community will instruct them to cut themselves off from any family members who are not supportive. Finally, these folks will offer to be a kind of surrogate family for them. 

Because there are so many of these support groups, chatrooms and YouTube channels, and because someone is always on them no matter what time it is or where you are in the world, it is easy to see how one might fall into this alternate reality. 

Presumably there was a time when people worried that readers of romance novels might meet a similar fate. They would become so engrossed by these bodice rippers that they would stop being productive members of society. Maybe they would lose track of what is real and what is fiction. But no novel can offer the kind of all-encompassing experience that an online chatroom can. 

Indeed, if you decide to put down your romance novels, the authors will not try to contact you about picking them up again. But the internet has made just about all addictions much worse. Not only will you be contacted via text or email if you try to drop out of any kind of social media group, the internet will also facilitate your porn or gambling habit. It will make it easier for you to procure drugs as well. 

How can you get other people or companies to stop involving you in their conflicts or selling you products you are trying not to use? Anyone who has tried to get off of an email list knows this is no easy feat. How do you stop people from sucking you back in? The only answer may be playing dead. 

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Deseret News contributor and the author of “No Way to Treat a Child: How the Foster Care System, Family Courts, and Racial Activists Are Wrecking Young Lives,” among other books.