As an early adopter of social media, I readily embraced its power to amplify patient advocacy and connect with others with shared interests and goals. From sharing stories online to building community and creating advocacy campaigns, I was an enthusiastic and passionate social media user.
However, as time has passed, I’ve seen a darker side to social media, giving me pause for thought. Online harassment, misinformation, and divisive behavior have become all too common. This harmful behavior can negatively impact both advocates and the causes we strive to support.
Even though I still use social media in my advocacy work and continue to teach and write about best practices, I now also warn against its downsides. The key to navigating the social media landscape successfully is knowing how to leverage the positives and stay vigilant about the negatives.
In this article, I will share ten tips to help you approach online interactions more mindfully and intentionally. By putting these suggestions into action, you can create a more meaningful and positive social media experience for yourself and others.
1. Become a trustworthy source of information
Help combat the spread of false information by being a reliable source of information. Double-check your sources and fact-check claims before including them in your online content. Take the time to research and verify any claims or statistics that you come across. Consult multiple sources and cross-reference the information to ensure its accuracy.
Transparency is also key when presenting information. Be clear about the sources you use, and provide proper attribution where necessary. Additionally, it’s equally important to educate your community about identifying and avoiding misinformation. Equip them with the tools to critically evaluate content and sources before engaging or sharing it online.
2. Be mindful of privacy
Reviewing and managing your privacy settings is an important aspect of maintaining a safe and secure online presence. Before posting, think about the potential reach of your content and the implications it may have on your privacy. Regularly review and update your privacy settings on various platforms to ensure they align with your preferences. Take advantage of available tools and features that allow you to control who can access your information and adjust your privacy levels accordingly.
Protecting your privacy also extends to being considerate of others’ boundaries. Before sharing stories or experiences involving other people, obtain their consent. Respecting their privacy and honoring their wishes not only builds trust but also creates a respectful and trustworthy online environment.
3. Engage in respectful discussions and debates
Online conflicts can quickly escalate and derail meaningful discussions. Instead of engaging in heated debates, seek to de-escalate tensions and shift the focus back to the core issues. Refrain from responding impulsively to provocative comments or inflammatory posts. If conflicts arise, address them calmly and constructively. Privately reach out to the concerned parties to resolve issues, promoting a culture of problem-solving rather than public confrontation. Remind yourself and your community of the ultimate goal of your advocacy efforts. Keeping the focus on the cause itself, rather than personal conflicts or distractions, ensures that your message remains clear and impactful.
4. Cultivate digital empathy
Cultivating digital empathy means taking the time to understand and validate the experiences, emotions, and perspectives of others. It means engaging in respectful conversations, even when we disagree, and finding common ground where possible. Online platforms have become powerful tools for connecting individuals from all walks of life. However, the virtual nature of these spaces can sometimes lead to a lack of empathy and a disregard for the feelings and experiences of others. That’s why we must be intentional in our words and actions, always striving to create a safe and inclusive environment for everyone. By actively listening and showing compassion, we can bridge the gaps that exist and foster deeper connections within our digital communities.
5. Report harassment and hate speech
While it’s true that social media has brought people together in empowering ways, it’s equally the case that distance and anonymity have provided a breeding ground for cyberbullying and online harassment. Cyberbullying refers to harassment, intimidation, or harming others through digital platforms. This form of aggression can take various forms, such as spreading rumors, sending threatening messages, or sharing hurtful content. The distressing aspect of cyberbullying is that it can happen 24/7, even at home.
Take a stand against online harassment and hate speech. Report such instances to the platform administrators and encourage your community to do the same. Keep evidence of cyberbullying, such as screenshots or messages, to share when reporting the incidents to platform administrators.
6. Practice digital well-being
While online advocacy and engagement can be incredibly rewarding, it’s important to recognize the impact it may have on mental health. Setting boundaries and defining your limits when it comes to social media usage is a vital aspect of self-care. One effective strategy is to schedule designated times for social media engagement. Set specific periods during the day or week when you will actively participate in online advocacy or engage with others on social platforms. By doing so, you can create a sense of structure and control over your digital interactions, preventing social media from becoming overwhelming or consuming excessive amounts of your time.
Taking regular breaks from social media is also crucial for maintaining a healthy balance. Unplugging from screens allows you to recharge, be present in the moment, and focus on other aspects of your life that bring you fulfillment. Dedicate time to engage in activities that bring you joy, whether it’s spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies, or immersing yourself in nature. By giving your mind and body a break from the digital realm, you can rejuvenate yourself and enhance your overall well-being.
Remember, self-care is not selfish; it’s an essential practice for maintaining mental and emotional health. Prioritizing your well-being allows you to be more effective in your online advocacy efforts and enables you to have a positive impact on others. So, while you continue to make a difference through online advocacy, make sure to also prioritize your own self-care and mental well-being.
7. Protect against cognitive overload
Every day we are bombarded with posts, articles, images, and videos on social media. In this saturated digital landscape, our brains are exposed to an unprecedented amount of information. And while it may seem beneficial to have access to endless content, there is a downside—a concept known as cognitive overload. Moreover, the constant notifications and alerts from smartphones and other devices further contribute to this overload by interrupting our focus and diverting our attention.
To combat cognitive overload, it’s important to be mindful of our information consumption habits. Taking regular breaks from the constant stream of content can help give our brains time to rest and recharge. Setting boundaries and practicing digital detoxes can also be beneficial for our mental well-being. Additionally, focusing on quality over quantity when it comes to the content we consume can make a significant difference. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media feeds or getting lost in an endless loop of articles, taking a selective approach and seeking out high-quality, relevant, and reliable sources of information can help reduce cognitive overload. This way, we can ensure that we are engaging with content that is meaningful and valuable to us.
8. Guard against emotional contagion
The spread of emotions from one individual to another is called emotional contagion. It’s a fascinating aspect of human behavior that illustrates how we are wired to pick up on and mirror other people’s emotions, both in person and through our interactions on social media platforms. The celebratory moments, achievements, and acts of kindness shared on social media can evoke feelings of happiness, joy, and inspiration. On the other hand, the negative emotions that spread like wildfire on social media can have a profound impact on our emotional well-being. The constant barrage of bad news, heated arguments, and negativity circulating on various platforms can trigger feelings of sadness, frustration, or even anger.
When we are already feeling stressed or emotionally vulnerable, even a single post can evoke intense emotions within us. This immediate impact can leave us feeling overwhelmed or drained. Over time our emotional well-being may also be shaped by cumulative exposure to emotionally charged content on social media.
If you find yourself getting overwhelmed by the emotional content on social media, consider limiting your exposure. Set boundaries for yourself by allocating specific times of the day to check your accounts and then redirect your attention to other activities. Seeking out uplifting and positive content can help counterbalance the emotional experiences you encounter online. Follow accounts that promote kindness, motivation, and personal growth, and engage with content that resonates with your values and interests.
9. Nurture meaningful connections
Instead of focusing on accumulating a large number of followers, prioritize engaging in thoughtful discussions and meaningful interactions with others. Beyond just sharing content, offer support and encouragement to those in your online community. Acknowledge their achievements, lend a listening ear when they face challenges, and provide helpful advice when you can. Building these connections will not only enrich your online experience but also provide you with a support system that extends beyond the digital realm. These relationships can lead to collaborative opportunities, the exchange of ideas, and even friendships that can last a lifetime.
10. Foster inclusivity
While finding a community of like-minded individuals is appealing, it can also lead to exclusion for those who don’t quite fit the group dynamics. Experiencing such exclusionary dynamics on social media platforms can evoke feelings of loneliness, sadness, and a sense of not belonging. As responsible community leaders, it’s essential to be mindful of potential exclusion and seek ways to create more inclusive online spaces. Embracing diversity of thoughts, opinions, and experiences can enrich our online interactions and cultivate a more inclusive digital community. Whether it’s actively engaging with different perspectives, amplifying marginalized voices, or questioning our own biases, we can all contribute to making social media a more inclusive and welcoming space.
As advocates, we set the tone for the communities we work with. We can inspire and uplift others by cultivating an environment of respect, empathy, and support. Especially in a world that sometimes feels divided and polarized, cultivating kindness and understanding becomes even more important. Let’s work together to make the online world a better place, where compassion and understanding prevail, and where our collective efforts lead to meaningful change.
A Stanford Medicine X e-Patient scholar, Marie Ennis O’Connor is an internationally recognized keynote speaker, writer, and consultant on global trends in patient engagement, digital health and participatory medicine. Marie’s work is informed by her passion for embedding the patient voice at the heart of healthcare values. She writes about the experience of transitioning from breast cancer patient to advocate on her award-winning blog Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer.