Occupational Hazard is a series about how different jobs affect workers' mental health.
Like many people in society today, we all know that we spend too much time online—but as social media editors it is our job to be there. Social media managers, a position that was unheard of a decade ago, experience tremendous stress.
Social media can be a toxic place—especially for those of us who work in that space. Angry users on social seem to forget that a human being is behind the brand’s account they are screaming at or the story they are criticizing.
At the most recent Online News Association conference in Austin, Texas, I asked social media editors “How do you manage your mental health while managing social media?” The universal response was, “Wow. That’s a really good question.” I quickly realized that we share experiences, anxieties, and coping mechanisms, up to and including check-ins with mental health professionals.
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We spend countless hours online not just scheduling tweets, but also sharing and reading comments, crunching the analytics, and creating reports on audience reach and growth. We relish seeing our stories go viral, prompting lots of discussion and increasing our followers. But it’s a lonely place—and often frightening. Our professional profiles—either public or private—often lead to harassment and abusive online attacks.
Social media managers see the best of the internet and the worst. It is hard not to feel it personally.
“It is designed to hurt,” says Tracey Spencer, a psychologist in Washington, DC, whom I called for advice. “That’s what bullies do. These people are projecting their own feelings and insecurities, and likely don’t know how to be empathetic. What they are saying has nothing to do with you.”
So how do those of us in this small but growing profession keep our balance and sanity, while still doing our work?
Erica Williams Simon, head of the Creator’s Lab at Snapchat, told me she gets “hate mail and hate tweets just because I am a black woman. People will attack you.” Walks, prayer, or meditation and art help her cope, she says. She also mentioned that Snapchat offers great benefits for its employees, including generous time off and free mental health services.
Simon does not engage on hot topics, is careful about what she retweets and does not allow herself to get drawn in to toxic debates. “The internet isn’t my life. I’m responsible with how I use my voice online. It’s just like real life. You don’t join every discussion or say everything that you think in real life.”
She also suggested that colleagues feed themselves good content after a particularly grueling day online, adding: “Remember that you’re seeing the worst of people, and look for the good ones.”
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When faced with a tough day, Bobby Blanchard, social media editor at The Texas Tribune, says his managers support taking time off for mental health. One of his tips was setting all notifications on his cellphone to “Do Not Disturb” after leaving work—a tip Gene Park, social media editor at The Washington Post, also shared.
“My colleagues are watching me, and I have to set a good example for self-care and healthy work habits. I don’t want them to feel like they have to always be on, because they see me doing it,” he says. The Texas Tribune social media team also uses Slack messenger and has a channel devoted to reporting, discussing, and blocking trolls from their accounts.
“Moving to London was a wake-up call,” says Sari Zeidler, editorial director of growth at Quartz, a site that specializes in news from Africa and India. Her manager was upset when she emailed ideas to employees after hours, she says. “It’s so different from the American way, and it helped me to create efficiency at my job here,” Zeidler says. “I realized I was working too much and not unplugging.” Her advice: Set daily, manageable goals and block people who post hate speech or any kind of harassment.
Still, even if you block offenders and delete comments, you can’t unread their words. The insults and occasional racial slurs linger long after you log off. Spencer reminded me to “try to stop internalizing offensive comments” and to make sure to focus on “real” life. She recommends setting parameters around when you work and when you sign off. “In any job you have, you have to make time for yourself.”
I admit that when it comes to social media I sometimes operate on autopilot. I don’t have my notifications set for “Do Not Disturb” after work. I often check comments, retweet things, and check what’s trending on Twitter when I can’t sleep. Maybe I have to rethink that balance.
“There is only so much creative juice that you have,” says Blanchard of The Texas Tribune. “Part of being good at my job means logging off.”
For those of us in (and out of) the profession, I think that’s the best advice.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.