The rise of social media has bred a new class of professionals – but with the inherent harms becoming clearer, how can these workers be protected from its impact?
Considering they barely existed 10 years ago, the rise of the in-house social media professional has been phenomenal. With the likes of Twitter and TikTok now the go-to platforms for brands eager to reach the world’s 4.76 billion active social media users (Meltwater, 2023), the pursuit of pushing out posts and monitoring content is now the third most in-demand marketing position (LinkedIn, 2023).
But for all the buzz this burgeoning career can provide, there’s a darker side too. Toxicity in this space – such as trolling, abusive messaging and cyber bullying – is at an all-time high. Abusive tweets increased by 53% the week following Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter (Center for Countering Digital Hate, 2022), and some say dialogue is urgently overdue about what safeguards are needed to ensure those exposed to it as part of their duties feel safe.
A study by the University of Arkansas in the US found adults who use more social media are significantly more likely to develop depression within six months, regardless of personality type (Merrill et al, 2022), while a study of 5208 people in the American Journal of Epidemiology found regular use of Facebook had a negative impact on an individual’s wellbeing (Shakya and Christakis, 2017).
No one is safe
‘There is no doubt that those working in social media view it as an increasingly negative space,’ says Kirsty Marrins, a digital communications consultant to the charity sector who penned a wellbeing guide for media professionals for CharityComms in 2019. ‘Social media’s ability to attract negativity about an organisation’s actions is rife. The charity Mind found this out when its tweet featuring #TransMenAreMen produced a torrent of abuse. What organisations need to be aware of is that social media staff are often at the frontline of this.
‘It is extremely damaging to people’s mental health, and it’s high time this type of work was considered a risk to employees’ health – the same as any other.’
No organisation, it seems, is immune from social media abuse. Attacks are levelled at all organisations, from the National Trust to even the most innocuous smaller companies such as OriGym, a company that provides accreditation courses for personal trainers. ‘I had TikTok users personally targeting how I looked in videos we posted, just because I didn’t have a “gym body”,’ says social media manager Joe Malone. ‘It’s hard not to take this stuff personally – it can ruin your weekend and leave you feeling down.’
The typical preventive health and safety response is simply to remove potential risks – including risks relating to psychosocial health. Kirsty accepts this is hard in the social media space – the only way to completely remove risk is to turn off social media entirely, which won’t be an option for most firms. Does this mean exposure to vitriol must simply come with the territory? On this Kirsty is clear: ‘Having a “thick skin” or expecting people to “just get on with it” is no longer an acceptable response. Organisations need a proper health and safety policy.’
Complicating matters is the fact that as well as direct abuse, Kirsty says that simply monitoring social media exposes other distressing or upsetting content – such as the desperate plight of people in the aftermath of the recent Turkey/Syria earthquake. ‘When a charity shares a heartbreaking story, it often encourages posts of people’s own experiences – so while it’s not hate, it’s emotional stuff, which can take a toll on people over time.
How to cope with the toll of social media
Lydia Benham manages social media for HR and employment law consultancy Guardian Support. She offers OSH professionals advice on the policies her organisation uses to reduce the negative impact of social media on employees’ mental health:
- We use trusted social media sites to ensure reporting systems are available on-site and that the site is monitored.
- No one should put up with any negative or threatening behaviour, even on a social media platform. We have an open-door policy so that any comments having a negative impact are raised and discussed.
- Timing is limited – no one is expected to sit on social media all day as this can be detrimental to someone’s mental state.
- We connect with trusted people and partners.
- We advise not responding to negative comments as this could result in further negative impacts and become an argument. Should a legitimate complaint or enquiry be raised, this is escalated internally to management who deal with it.
- If a particular person is targeting a user, this person is reported and blocked to protect those on the social media site.
With the role of the OSH professional focusing ever more on managing psychosocial harms, how can the mental health of employees be supported in these circumstances?
Kirsty says tools exist (such as Sprout Social) that can create a ‘smart inbox’, which filters out certain trigger words or only allows people to read messages from those who directly get in touch. While it may mean staff miss out on what’s trending more widely, it’s a form of protection. She adds: ‘Proper training is needed: resilience training may not eliminate abusive tweets, but it can arm people to better deal with them.’
Mary Ogungbeje, research manager at IOSH, goes further. ‘When those in wider society deliberately seek to upset, employers must take it seriously. There’s also an argument for saying that if an organisation knows it has a product or service likely to provoke a backlash, it should fix this before throwing social media staff into the lion’s den. This is proactively mitigating risks.’
At OriGym, Joe advises taking time to have different mitigations for different platforms. ‘On Instagram you can block certain words, but not – for instance – on TikTok.’ If hurtful content is posted, he says he is encouraged to share it with managers and talk about it, which usually defuses things.
While negative social media responses can’t always be avoided, if staff are prepared for it or can limit their exposure to it, psychosocial risk can be much reduced. ‘Social media is real time, which means it can be distressing,’ says Kirsty. ‘Managers wouldn’t expose their own staff to the sorts of harassment and targeting we see on social media, so that’s the way they need to think about how their social media handlers are feeling week after week. It can be hard for their mental health, so staff need all the support they can get.’
Center for Countering Digital Hate. (2022) The Musk bump: quantifying the rise in hate speech under Elon Musk. See: counterhate.com/blog/the-musk-bump-quantifying-the-rise-in-hate-speech-under-elon-musk/ (accessed 23 February 2023).
CharityComms. (2019) A wellbeing guide for comms professionals. See: charitycomms.org.uk/wellbeing-guide (accessed 23 February 2023).
LinkedIn. (2023) LinkedIn 2023 most in-demand skills: learn the skills companies need most. See: linkedin.com/business/learning/blog/top-skills-and-courses/most-in-demand-skills?_l=en_US (accessed 23 February 2023).
Meltwater. (2023) 2023 Global digital report. See: meltwater.com/en/global-digital-trends (accessed 23 February 2023).
Merrill RA, Cao C, Primack BA. (2022) Associations between social media use, personality structure, and development of depression. Journal of Affective Disorders Reports 10.
Shakya HB, Christakis NA. (2017) Association of Facebook use with compromised well-being: longitudinal Study. American Journal of Epidemiology 185(3): 203-11.