This blog was originally conceived in response to seeing the massive emotional outpouring to the US 2016 Presidential Election. The vast majority of my Twitter PLN were shocked, angry, upset, bewildered by the result and took to Twitter to express their feelings. I wanted to understand if that was a healthy or an unhealthy response so I created a Twitter poll that asked teachers “After major world events e.g. Brexit, Election 2016 or terrorist attacks, how does social media impact you emotionally?”
There is evidence to suggest that feelings can be transmitted via social media, a phenomenon known as Emotional Contagion. What research indicates is that a positive post by friends on social media is more likely to result in you posting a positive message also. This can lead to a cascade effect where one positive message can result in multiple positive messages being posted by friends in other locations. Of course, the opposite is also (though to a lesser degree) true. Where negative messages are transmitted, you are more likely to also post negatively. This is worrying because it means that whereas once people were subject to Emotional Contagion via direct face to face meetings and possibly via print media, in a hyper-connected world, our moods are subject to being influenced by indirect global events. For example, in the wake of the US Presidential election members of my US PLN posted almost universally negative emotions on Twitter. I tried to provide a counter balance by looking for the positive in the situation but inevitably got pulled into arguments and even posted negatively myself. It left me feeling irritated even when I was offline. Logically, why should an Irishman be so interested in the affairs of the US? Yes, speaking logically it is easy to say US presidential elections affect me indirectly as a consequence of policy changes that may affect Ireland economically etc. But I wasn’t irritated because of that. I was emotionally engaged because so too were the majority of my PLN. And the tone of my Twitter timeline was also negative.
It is, of course, theoretically possible that were all social media users only to post positive news and opinions then the whole world could be blissed-out on positive emotions. This does somewhat explain the phenomenon of the echo-chamber on social media whereby educators only surround themselves with people with similar views on professional practice. But many would argue that by existing in a social media echo-chamber you are only looking to hear ideas and opinions that reinforce your teaching practice. This, obviously, minimises the value of social media to you and also has little direct impact on your professional practice. Essentially, you have to decide; are you on Twitter to be happy but potentially stagnant professionally or are you there to risk unhappiness but potentially develop as an educator?
In any case, even if you have a PLN that is made up only of educators, you will not be insulated from emotionally challenging global events. If you limit yourself to following educators who have a strict education-posts-only approach to social media, your PLN will be very small indeed. In the poll I conduced and reproduced above only 16% of educators stated that their engagement with social media had no effect on their emotional wellbeing. Maybe they have found that perfect echo-chamber but it is much more likely that they have developed excellent coping skills to ensure that they are immune to emotional contagion. Of the 33% who stated that social media has a positive impact on their emotional wellbeing it seems likely that they have surrounded themselves with positive people on social media and while it risks the echo-chamber effect, they have prioritised their emotional stability and decided that that energy needs to be directed elsewhere. A majority of educators - 51% - found that engaging with social media after major world events has a negative impact on their wellbeing with 4% stating that it had a long-term effect. This is obviously unwelcome so here are some simple tips to make your social media experience better for your wellbeing without limiting your potential for professional development.
- Set expectations for your social media use. I personally only follow educators on Twitter and I have a mix of educators and friends on FaceBook, which I engage with sparingly. Twitter is my go-to social media tool so I essentially use social media for professional purposes and that cuts out the vast majority of world events that could unnecessarily influence my emotions.
- Set parameters for your social media use. This is, of course, easier said than done but engage social media with purpose. On Twitter, I like to join chats as often as possible but that means opening up your ideas and beliefs to differences of opinion that you may find upsetting. If you do not need that stress you may wish to use Twitter simply to follow people, learn from their posts but not engage back.
- Avoid Negative Nellies – Just as in real life avoid following those people who are intentionally provocative or negative. They are most likely personally unhappy but you will not fix them nor should you try. I am not advocating you build an echo-chamber. I am merely saying bypass people who revel in eliciting negative emotional rises.
- Avoid Social Justice Warriors – No, not people who care about social justice issues, rather those people who are singularly obsessed with social justice and use social media as a pulpit for their political beliefs and attempt to make you feel guilty for not being as obsessed as they are. They also are most likely unhappy and you should not try to fix them.
- Limit your access to social media. Set realistic time goals. I find it useful to pick twitter chats I like and make time for them throughout the week.
- If you find yourself checking your accounts compulsively then a simple thing you can do is delete these Apps from your portable devices. It is too easy to be hyper-connected with the touch of a single button. Having to go via browser adds an extra step that may help cut back on how often you connect.
- Do not check your social media accounts before bed. Receiving a negative response or a challenging opinion before bed is a guarantee of a restless night. While you are at it, ban all portable devices from the bedroom to remove the temptation.
- You do not need to have the last word. When you feel attacked on social media not only may you feel threatened but also exposed – it is not nice to have others looking on as you “defend” yourself. Remember, it is not a defeat to let someone else have the last word even if you vehemently disagree. In cases of conflict, just think: does this comment impugn my character or my professionalism, making it worth the emotional strain of “fighting back”? The chances are that it is evident to everyone that this person is simply sparring for a fight. Deny it to them.
- When you get a particularly negative comment or when you are about to post something that makes you feel emotional, get up, make a cup of coffee or go for a walk, then engage. It may not be worth the effort when you sit back down.
- When you engage personally with people, especially on major global events, follow the golden rules we teach our students. Think before you post:
- Is it necessary?
- Is it kind?
- Is it helpful?
- Are you being intellectually and emotionally honest?
- If you post on sensitive global events be prepared for responses that you may not agree with.
- Your comments will be accessible to anyone anytime. Be sure they represent you fairly.
These are just a few of the simple ways that you can preserve your emotional wellbeing on social media.
Please post any suggestions you may have in the comments below.