Mental health online (beyond avoiding the comments)

For writers, performers and other artists, social media can be both fertile and frightening. ABC’s Osman Faruqi shares some tips on how to take care of yourself online.
Mental health online (beyond avoiding the comments) It might be called ‘social media’, Faruqi says, but it’s increasingly indispensable to our professional lives – with consequences for wellness. Image: Marvin Meyer via Unsplash.
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Jinghua Qian

Friday 11 October, 2019

It can be rough out there on the rapids of the internet. Whether it’s the 24/7 stream of depressing news, or the harassment buoyed by ease, speed and anonymity, it all takes a toll on the psyche. For creative professionals in particular, social media engagement can often leave us exposed to intense and deeply personal abuse.

That’s a dilemma that’s all too familiar to journalist Osman Faruqi, the deputy editor of ABC Life and former politics editor of pop culture site Junkee.

‘People are encouraged to have big, boisterous, active profiles and personalities online, but not the support to help them deal with the negative consequences of that.’
Osman Faruqi, ABC journalist

‘It’s a catch-22 at the moment in digital media because on the one hand, writers and journalists and creatives have an easier opportunity to reach audiences than ever before through the internet and social media, but those avenues can also be used to target us as well,’ he says. ‘People are encouraged to have big, boisterous, active profiles and personalities online, but not the support to help them deal with the negative consequences of that.’

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Faruqi amassed a broad fanbase online with his sharp takes and witty social media presence – but that also came with vile racist abuse. Earlier this year, he decided to deactivate Twitter after realising it wasn’t worth it.

‘I thought, I’m unable to share anything without having 100 replies calling me a dirty Arab N-word ape or whatever – the negatives outweighed the positives,’ he says.

But deleting your account is just one of many actions you can take to look after yourself, your audience, and other creatives that you work with when it comes to mental health online.

Mental health is an issue of occupational health and safety

‘It’s not good for your mental health or your safety to be exposed to hundreds or thousands of aggressive, threatening comments and messages every day,’ Faruqi says.

While big media organisations in the US and UK are starting to give their staff more support in managing their social media profiles, Faruqi says, there aren’t the same industrial protections and obligations around mental health and social media that there are around other OH&S risks. The issue demands more attention from unions, employers, and industrial relations law.

Editors have a deep responsibility to prepare contributors for the risks, Faruqi says. ‘They encourage contributors to be prolific online because that gets engagement and clicks. It benefits the organisation so the organisation also has a responsibility to provide support when there’s blowback.’

One thing that organisations can do is have honest conversations with both employees and freelancers about the risks they face, particularly around work that that might elicit hostile responses – for example around race, gender, sexuality and social issues where public opinion can be polarised and aggressive. Organisations can also put structures in place to protect people when they expect such blowback, such as time off, someone to monitor their inbox and notifications, counselling, or even IT support to guard against hacking.


Image: Age Barros via Unsplash.

Protecting your privacy

Online harassment gets even more frightening when you realise how much of your personal information is available online. Faruqi advises that the best way to check what trolls might find is to google yourself.

Look for anything that you think could be used to hurt you or your loved ones, and either take it down, or change your privacy settings. On most platforms, you can set different privacy levels to demarcate between your most trusted friends, less intimate acquaintances, and the general public. You can also request for websites and search engines to remove sensitive personal information.

‘If you start thinking about things strategically, it can help you compartmentalise the information you put out.’

If you often use social media to promote your work, you might find it useful to have separate public and private facing accounts, so you can share your work through a public account that doesn’t include any personal information.

Faruqi says, ‘If you start thinking about things strategically, it can help you compartmentalise the information you put out.’

Taking care of your audience

There are plenty of resources to help arts and media organisations consider how to take care of their audiences when presenting material that might be confronting or traumatising. For example, Mindframe produces guidelines for news media and stage and screen on how to portray and discuss suicide and mental illness.

Content warnings are increasingly common in digital media as well as performing arts and visual arts spaces as the principle of informed consent becomes more widespread. For example, the Safety House Guide helps audiences assess what they feel okay about seeing, while this year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival guide offered a ratings system of ‘Inside the Comfort Zone’, ‘Pushing the Comfort Zone’ and ‘Outside the Comfort Zone’ along with more detailed accessibility information to help audiences navigate the program.

As well as preparing your audiences beforehand, you can provide aftercare by offering support resources and avenues for people to process their reactions.

Often work that addresses confronting topics will inspire contact from people who have experienced similar things, so Faruqi advises that it’s worth thinking ahead about the advice and support that you can offer people who might approach you.

Setting boundaries while maintaining the profile you need

As an individual, you can help mitigate the impact of social media on your mental health by setting boundaries – for example, only looking at social media during certain hours, separating your personal and professional profiles, or just exposing less of yourself to the world.

‘Be pragmatic and ruthless about what you’re getting out of it and what the cost is to you,’ Faruqi says.

In Faruqi’s case, he had several breaks from Twitter before deactivating it, each time returning because he resented the fact that he was being forced off the platform by racists.

‘If you’re a woman or a person of colour, social media – and Twitter in particular – is going to be a deeply hostile place … and it’s really unfair that white men will succeed in that environment and get opportunities as a result of it, but it’s also the reality, and I think it’s better that people know that,’ he says.

Alternative ways to connect online include using an alias, sticking to closed Facebook and messaging groups, or trying out new online communities that might be less toxic than the big platforms.

‘You should feel comfortable letting your work speak for itself.’

However, Faruqi suggests that the benefits of building a profile on social media may be overstated. ‘[I thought] my career was contingent on me being active and unfiltered online,’ he says, but he’s since discovered that isn’t really true. ‘You should feel comfortable letting your work speak for itself.’

For creative professionals, it can be difficult to draw a line between our work environments and our personal lives, and the pressure to be on social media blurs the line further. For many artists, writers, and performers, work is personal, and it’s inevitable that we have to feed vulnerable parts of ourselves into it. Nonetheless, you might draw strength from the wisdom of writer Toni Morrison: ‘You are not the work you do; you are the person you are,’ she writes.