Story at a glance

  • Talking about issues we care about on social media can be difficult, especially when there are voices that push your buttons.
  • It’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion on social media because most issues involve a lot of nuance that get oversimplified or lost entirely.
  • A psychologist recommends avoiding heated discussions online — but if you feel you need to jump in, be sure to monitor your emotional and bodily responses.

Although it may be tempting to engage in heated discussions on social media platforms like Twitter or Facebook, it may not be good for your mental health. 

Generally, psychologists are interested in how people use social media and how it affects us emotionally. “Social media is interesting because it's helpful and it's also hurtful at the same time,” says Vaile Wright, a licensed psychologist who serves as the director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association. “So some people find social media really helpful in terms of finding a sense of identity.” It might also help with social anxiety because it doesn’t put people in the same types of social situations when in-person.

We asked Wright about how to keep our calm while using social media, especially when we see inflaming messages about issues that we care about.

(Twitter) War! What is it good for?

As much as we might like to blame the social media platforms that we are addicted to, it’s really up to us and how we choose to use those platforms. “It really comes down to what's your own personal approach to social media,” Wright tells Changing America. It especially has to do with what we choose to follow and like, because that will determine what will show up in our feeds. That will affect how we respond emotionally. “Are you getting worked up?” says Wright. “Or is it just that you're looking at puppy videos and things that bring you joy?”

Social media may not be the best place for meaningful discussions because tone is really challenging to convey, says Wright. If you’ve had an argument with a loved one over text, you know exactly what that means. In short, your words may get misinterpreted no matter how well you craft that tweet. “The challenge with social media when we're having these types of really nuanced and complex community is you can't have them on social media,” says Wright. 

It could be beneficial to think about what you are trying to accomplish by using social media. Is it how you get your news? Keep up with friends? If it’s making new enemies, then you might want to revamp your philosophy about social media, if only for your own mental health.

Bad behavior and bad habits

Internet trolls are also a hindrance to having meaningful interactions over social media. “We just know from the research that people are much more likely to use inflammatory language and or demeaning language, when there's as this anonymity that is perceived on social media versus when we have these conversations face to face,” says Wright.

We also tend to fall into bad habits with social media. People can lose track of time when scrolling through their feeds, especially in the evenings before bed. You might look at your clock and think, “What was I doing for the past hour?” That time isn’t being spent very productively if you are only passively viewing. “The other thing we know from social media is that individuals who use it and just scroll without actually interacting, report lower levels of satisfaction with social media” than people who post photos of good things or experiences, Wright tells Changing America.

Do not engage

It might be better for you to stay away from discussions completely on social media. In fact, Wright encourages individuals “to not engage.” If it’s too tempting for you, maybe you’ll need to create physical distance to gain mental distance, too. “It might mean putting your phone, or your iPad or whatever you use in a different room, [like] while you're watching a movie, while you're sleeping...putting some distance between you and your devices,” says Wright.

But if you must...

If there are issues you feel compelled to engage with on social media, then it’s good to think about why that is. “If it’s important to you to put this message out there, there’s nothing wrong with that,” says Wright. But you have to be aware that sometimes unpleasant things will come back, she adds.

If you are going to get into a Twitter war, take breaks when necessary. A lot of people manifest their stress physically. Pay attention to how your body is responding, says Wright. So, are your shoulders tight? Is your stomach upset? Is your heart racing? On top of that, you can use things like ‘I’ statements to express how you feel, suggests Wright.

If you are hoping to get through to the people on the other side of the conversation, it's really about connecting to the emotion that is underlying their belief system, says Wright. “And that's almost always fear,” she adds. “I think we can all relate to being fearful and uncertain.” If you want your message to reach the other side, it’s good to try to understand where they are coming from. “If you can figure out what that emotion is that's making somebody say the things that they're saying, then it gives you some sense of...empathic response,” Wright tells Changing America. “It's not always easy.”

Social media will be around for a long time, and most of us will keep following and engaging in topics that we care about. But it’s important to keep remember that social media isn’t everything. Wright thinks social media can be an important tool, but she would also encourage people to think about how they can be more effective when it comes to supporting the issues they care about. For example, if immigration is important to you, ask yourself if tweeting about it is effective. Or could it be better to participate in a local charity, volunteer group or something similar to actually make a difference on the issue? Wright says, “And maybe it's both, it doesn't have to be either or.”

Published on Nov 21, 2019