Running social media without ruining your life

Headshot of Nelly Leonidis
Nelly Leonidis

By: Nelly Leonidis

Several weeks ago, I was doing what most of us have been doing for the last two years: scrolling through Twitter, looking for a bit of good news on a snowy winter night when I spotted a concerning tweet. The author was expressing frustration and sadness from working on content that was continuously attacked by groups seeking to wreak havoc on our nation’s capital. “Logging off social media today, I am exhausted,” she wrote. I felt that, deeply, because not long ago, I managed campaigns and accounts that dealt with serious and occasionally heartbreaking subject matter. My work was highly rewarding and satisfying, but when the haters came out, they really came out. 

Ten years ago, when the Social Media Community of Practice (SMCoP) was formed, social media and online engagement spaces were very different. Our excitement was about the technology and the tactics that brought like-minded people together from all walks of life. The value in spending time online was in finding and connecting with peers, hearing directly from experts, and promoting brands using a personal voice. Fast-forward to today, like-mindedness and niche expertise (whether merited or not) form filter bubbles that have been disrupting our communities and societies for the better part of the last 6 years. 

At the centre of many of these online interactions are the social media practitioners who create strategies, publish content, monitor the public environments, and engage with users directly on official accounts. They are also the ones who cannot escape the daily barrage of vitriol, direct attacks, and incivility that borders on cyberbullying at times.

And while we encourage people to share their highs and lows at work, we seldom consider the risk to our social media practitioners of the repeated exposure to the intense volume of online negativity. That, combined with the inability to “turn off” social media due to professional obligations, creates the perfect environment for burnout.

Burnout does not occur overnight. It takes weeks and months of stress and anxiety to build up inside of us and start eclipsing any sense of good we had in what we do, read, or see online. But much like how burnout emerges gradually, there are daily self-care mechanisms that—when used—could deflate the impact of stress and anxiety. These practices originate at the individual level, and could bring about changes to processes and corporate practices, eventually influencing the environment in which we all operate.

Below is a sampling of ways we can practice self-care when managing social media accounts, or at any time in our careers.

1. Stop and reset the body

What we read online, and how much of it we consume and internalize, has a physiological effect on us. That’s why it’s important to pause and check in on our current state of being. Is the heart racing? Are breaths shallow? Consciously taking a moment to breathe and reset helps anchor the brain in the present moment, and allows us to remember that this state is temporary. If you’re having trouble grounding yourself and checking in, try boxed breathing for one minute: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, rest for 4 seconds. If it helps, trace the shape of a square with your fingers. This helps calm your nervous system and decreases stress in your body.

2. Zoom out of your current situation to get a different perspective

We often turn to those in our immediate vicinity for support in difficult times. Part of self-care involves recognizing the limits of those around you—who may be overburdened with work or have no bandwidth left for support—and looking for external sources of help. These might include contacts in your network (such as SMCoP peers), those in your personal sphere (such as friends), or professionals (such as therapists and coaches). Talking through challenges and learning novel ways of looking at a problem helps you see that problem differently. At the very least, it can help you feel seen and heard as an individual. These lifelines are even more important when you feel like you have no time to stop and think about what’s overwhelming you. Having a space to safely explore your thoughts, feelings, worries, and concerns is one of the biggest—yet most overlooked—aspects of self-care.

3. Hack your immediate environment

Environment plays the biggest role in the actualization of self-care. For example, it can offer cues that remind us to disconnect and ask for help when we feel overwhelmed. It can be as simple as setting a reminder in your calendar to drink water, or to get up and stretch every hour. Or it could involve creating an end-of-day routine that signals to your brain the need to phase out of this part of the day. Mine involves writing a to-do list for the next day, stashing equipment away, and walking out of the work space. Repeated over time, the disconnect from the workplace, whether it’s remote or in a shared space, gets easier.

4. Lead by example

Modelling good behaviour belongs to anyone, regardless of experience or title. You don’t need permission to check in with your colleagues and supervisors at work, nor do you need authorization to put boundaries in place, such as respecting your rest time and taking daily lunch breaks. These behaviours signal to those around you that a healthy and balanced environment can happen at any level, and can influence corporate culture over time. Abby Wambach, American retired soccer player, coach and member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame, calls this “leading from the sidelines.” It’s worth remembering that these practices aren’t just for you—they set a precedent for whoever comes after you.

5. Change the game

When we started using social media as a communications channel, we were creating strategies based on the understanding that users wanted a healthy and respectful online dialogue with our departments. Our advice was to rise above any unbecoming conduct of a small group of “trolls”. We wouldn’t acknowledge or respond to them, instead adhering to our well thought-out, logical, and data-driven plans. This is no longer the game. Over the last few years, bots, predatory algorithms, and well-funded hate campaigns have emerged from every corner of the Internet. No social network escaped this weaponization of mis- and disinformation. If we want to continue communicating in this space, our approach and advice must adapt. Correcting misinformation can be an active part of our strategy, including tactics like actively calling out coordinated disinformation campaigns. 

Recent events, and the last two years more generally, have highlighted how fragile our communities, societies, and democracies are in the face of consistent online hate campaigns. That’s why the SMCoP is adding resources and offerings in the future that will help its members find balance and build resilience, while the Big Five in tech update their terms of service to address online toxicity and harm.

This article was based on a presentation and Ask Me Anything session delivered at the CCO Learning Days conference. You can find the recording on GCpedia! (Available only on the Government of Canada network).

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