Culture

Eight ways to keep yourself sane on Twitter: online feminism & mental health

By Anna Fryer

This week, to coincide with the national Mental Health Awareness Week, we’re publishing a series of articles looking at feminism and mental health. Some readers may find this content distressing.

A number of recent cases, as highlighted in Kirsty Wark’s recent BBC documentary Blurred Lineshave brought into focus an alarming anti-feminist backlash, where abuse online has emerged as a serious problem in the new culture of misogyny and hate .

Such behaviour can compromise the physical and psychological health of our community, and the strategies below aim to help minimise the stress, and maximise the benefits that a global online community provides.

1) Stay safe 

There is a curious dichotomy in the use of social media. It has the ability to relieve stress with its fulfilment of the human need for social connectedness, but can cause anxiety and infringe on our sense of safety. At the worst extremes, this can result in identity theft, cyber stalking, and cyberbullying.

Keep personal details (e.g. where you live or work) off Twitter. Use the maximum security settings to allow some degree of privacy. Don’t take other users at face value.

Twitter allows its users considerable control of their projected persona, with the opportunity to delete any content that contradicts this perfect self-image. In the real world our assessment of people is far more multidimensional, with information from others, our visual impressions, body language and the nuances of our undervalued gut instinct.

Online, narcissists may appear harmless, but their inflated sense of self-esteem may be fragile and descend into vicious damaging behaviours. In the large groups that form on Twitter, even individuals with a healthy sense of self can lose it. There is a propensity to descend into narcissism, with unwanted aspects of self projected onto an opponent’s avatar. When hateful projects are validated in groups (a cause of concern in the feminist community) the dangers of groupthink and a lack of this reality testing can be apparent.

2) Don’t tolerate abuse of yourselves or others 

There are some behaviours that are automatic red cards, involving immediate blocking and reporting as abuse. If there is a specific threat of harm to yourself or others contact the police in the first instance. Take screen shots as evidence to email to the investigating officer so they can assess the level of risk and proceed appropriately.

Content on Twitter can be inflammatory, with a diverse range of opinions. However, personally insulting or seriously offensive messages can be reported to Twitter. If you are the victim of predatory behaviour, try to resist the temptation to engage in defending yourself or counter-attacking. Such “trolling” is a means of seeking validation via human contact, even horrified or offended responses. Do not “feed the trolls”; show your contempt through silence, blocking and reporting. These “games” of human interaction, as described by Eric Berne, can feel compelling but, when they serve to increase distress and feelings of victimisation, are to be avoided.

3) Use the block function 

Blocking is Twitter’s key safety tool. Be clear on your own boundaries and if somebody violates them, act. Twitter is a virtual space but you are in charge of who you interact with. If you feel interactions lack worth and invite damage to your self-esteem then the online connection can be broken.

4) Don’t get into long, ongoing arguments 

When you believe something passionately it is perfectly appropriate to argue your corner. But engaging in long repetitive discussions with someone whose views are concrete and opposed to yours is draining and futile. While in interpersonal relationships disagreement is inevitable (and healthier than the alternative passive dependant strategy of denial of self), we would be unlikely to develop or continue any relationship based on arguments. The Twitter world is no different: recognising this and withdrawing is likely to be the healthiest option for all involved.

5) Avoid Twitter at work 

The use of Twitter at work (other than as part of your role) is fraught with difficulties. Any employment is a transaction where you receive remuneration for performing tasks. If your Twitter usage is impairing your performance and it is noticed, you risk damage to your hard earned status and position. Venting your frustrations about your boss on the Internet may even directly contravene your employment contract, or your registration if you are a professional.

Recent research by the Chartered Institute of Professional Development (CIPD) showed that two out of five employers used a candidate’s online presence for screening prospective employees. While it is debatable whether a prospective employer has the right to analyse a private Twitter feed, employing privacy blocks can help separate your work and personal identities.

6) Beware of using Twitter as a means of avoidance 

Twitter and the Web allow you the psychological defence of avoidance by procrastination. While reading every tweet from a person who interests you might seem like a good idea, if it happens to coincide with your dream job interview preparation you may be defending your underlying anxieties about failing by avoidance of the important task. Prioritise effectively and resist the temptation.

7) Keep it in perspective 

Twitter users come and go, and are perhaps the most potentially rejecting of all online communities. While amassing followers may strengthen your ego, these online communities are only a small part of our unique self. An online indiscretion, unless you are a heavily scrutinised celebrity, may actually go unnoticed in the constant stream of information, and tweets and other online posts can be deleted rapidly.

8) Switch off and relax 

The breadth of information that can be accessed via Twitter is of variable quality and can feel limitless. The lines between work and leisure time can become blurred, with a non-stop conveyer belt of articles and tweets. Anxiety can be seen as a button being held down on the fight-or-flight reflex to stress. Trying to keep that button held down so you can devour more information could generate symptoms of stress and tension, leading to symptoms such as insomnia, low mood, free-floating anxiety and panic. If you detect the symptoms of information overload, consider declaring a technology-free zone such as your bedroom, or daily offline time, such as the last two hours before you go to bed.

Using mindfulness approaches to manage these symptoms can be useful, and allow us to remain in the present and stay grounded. If you have any concerns about your mental health, talking to your GP can help you access local counselling, psychology and other appropriate treatments.

Anna Fryer is a Psychiatrist, feminist, mother of one preschooler and fan of the arts. Follow her  @annacfryer

For information and support on mental health issues, visit the Mental Health Foundation or Mind.

Photo: Baishampayan Ghose

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