The proliferation of different social media platforms provides the global community the opportunity to transmit information and opinions at lightening quick speed via countless unique venues. As we have seen in recent history, social media has not only offered an avenue for social engagement, but it has also led to cultivating tangible changes in our community, including assisting in political elections (Chang & Masunaga, 2015), promoting terrorism (Braw, 2009) or fighting it (Menn, 2015), communicating important information after natural catastrophes (Fine, 2013), and assisting with major fundraising efforts for important causes in our community (Sreenivasan, 2014).
Although social media platforms do have roots in the mundane and sophomoric (read: cat videos), clinicians must appreciate and attempt to understand the ways in which our clients utilize this medium and how we can leverage it to reach prospective and current clients, while also communicating with other clinicians in a professional manner. Much media coverage and research has already been invested in the ways in which social media can have both a positive and negative effect on individual’s emotions and sense of self (Hampton, Rainie, Lu, Shin & Purcell, 2015). When we work with our clients, we often speak to and assist them with problem-solving challenges both in their physical worlds and in their digital identities, in which people may be wholeheartedly invested. The same applies to clinicians. As both practitioners and brands, we often utilize social media and the internet to further our brand, communicate with other clinicians, recruit clients, and consume research. As we go about these avenues on the internet, we continuously engage with social media and we are often reminded of its tremendous impact on our daily lives and relationships.
Before I was a clinician, I tended to babble on social media and magically say a lot without saying much at all. In addition to constantly posting Facebook status updates about my beloved Boston Celtics and the mundane actions of my small social circle, many of my expressed reactions to social issues were passionate, but lacked mechanisms to inform the reader. For me, these responses to social issues were often me, “speaking to the choir,” in that these posts were intended to be read, understood, and agreed with by similarly-minded peers and friends.
When I entered graduate school and later began my internship, I reexamined the ways in which I interacted with social media. I not only changed the ways in which I personally interacted with this portal of the internet, but also thought about the ways in which I could utilize social media to advocate for my community. Through this process of reflecting upon social media, I grew in my ability to recognize the true power in being “Dr. Jonathan Jenkins,” instead of just “Jonathan Jenkins” or “JJ.” With the recognition and social status that often came with those two letters in front of my name and the abbreviated letters behind it, I took it upon myself to leverage the ways in which I could utilize my community status as a doctor to speak for those voices that were underserved and marginalized, and galvanize others to become more aware of important social causes.
Like many clinicians, I am often asked by friends and family to weigh in on social issues, especially those related to this current voracious election cycle. In this current election, there appears to be an uptick in the degree to which social issues have become a key and volatile focus of many of the recent editorials and debates. From topics such as immigration, racial profiling, and religious freedom, to the civil rights of transgender individuals, the community as a whole has participated in an often-animated discussion on these topics, with many believing strongly in their own positions as the righteous and correct positions for the community. As inquires and requests to give my own opinion on these topics grew stronger from my peers and colleagues, I was forced to think about the ways in which clinicians do and should participate in these discussions, given our stakeholder position within the community. Outlined below are several strategies I utilize to determine how and when to respond to social causes, and how I utilize social platforms to inform my social media community.
What Do You Want to Say?
Once you have an issue on which you want to comment, the next step is to cultivate your statement. To cultivate your statement, think about members of your target audience, what you want their takeaway message to be, and also, who you are, both as a person and a clinician. For example, if I am writing about the importance of fighting recent legislation that would reduce funding for special needs children in schools, I would want my audience to focus on the impact this proposed change would have on the students’ mental health, given my role as a psychologist. As both a clinician and the child of an elementary school teacher who frequently worked with special needs children, I also come with a unique perspective that I should capitalize on in my social media statement.
When functioning as a psychologist commenting on a social issue, it is imperative to always comment from a position of known knowledge and not assumptions. When commenting via a position of known knowledge, one is utilizing their clinical knowledge, guidance from the American Psychological Association’s Ethics code, and appropriate personal and professional experiences to inform the public. When engaged in this type of social dialogue, the clinician greatly reduces the likelihood of either operating outside the boundaries of competence or providing false or inappropriate information to the public and therefore causing potential damage to the community, current clients, and the profession. When operating from a position of assumptions, a person is presenting information from a perspective lacking in evidence, safety, facts, and logic. These positions often resonate purely from an emotional place instead of from a position of thoughtful reflection supported by research. Known knowledge provides for a stronger argument and one more capable of informing the minds of the community and assisting individuals in thinking more critically and thoughtfully regarding the particular topic, which should be the goal of any type of social media advocacy.
Although it is difficult to believe, the Golden Rule STILL applies to one’s life and interactions on the internet. Although the internet is known for appalling, demeaning, and truly emotionally devastating constructs, such as cyber bullying and revenge pornography, there is the potential to change the culture of the internet by engaging in and promoting more balanced and respectful interactions with others. People harbor many complicated emotions around issues of social justice, and may respond to others’ experiences of lack of respect, safety, or civil rights with feelings of anger, frustration, agitation, and aggression of their own. Given this reality, it is often important to be able to recognize when one is being passionate versus when one is being disrespectful or overly aggressive. When a person crosses the line and becomes aggressive about social justice issues, the individual runs the risk of having the specific message lost in the fervor of an attack on someone else or the opposing point of view. A thoughtful and effective social commentator will be able to express a distinct point of view with facts and emotions that both inspire and enrage but do not insult. As clinicians, this is a difficult line for us to straddle, especially when we may be greatly personally impacted by these social issues. It is our responsibility to do so in order to be respectful to the entire community, even those who look to divide it. Although it might seem difficult to be respectful to those who oppose social issues we care deeply about, it is important to keep in mind that respectful does not mean that you cannot be pointed and stern in your position or response. To avoid getting caught up in responding inappropriately, always take a few minutes reviewing a response or social media post before pasting it on the internet, or ask a close friend or colleague to read the post for appropriateness.
Being nice also provides great insight into your therapeutic style for those in the community. When posting on social media, we often forget that our views and opinions are not only available to our “followers” and friends, but others who have access to the words or pictures we put online (read: almost anyone). Given this undeniable fact, a clinician will be best served mirroring the welcoming and open minded environment that operates within the clinician’s therapeutic space, so as to be welcoming to prospective clients and community members. A community member who reads something from a therapist that seems ill-conceived, short tempered, hyperbolic, and offensive will understandably make certain assumptions about the therapist’s ability to hold the client in a nonjudgmental space. Being thoughtful and emotionally present is not only a necessary ingredient in good psychotherapy, but also an aspect of participating with social media. By taking this time, you decrease the likelihood of passionately posting something to your account that may have soothed your initial anger, but unfortunately portrays you in a less than positive light.
Choose the Appropriate Platform for Your Response
Each social platform has its own advantages and disadvantages, and thus deliberate thought should go into deciding which social media platform to utilize for any statements or social advocacy. For example, Instagram might be a great platform to post a picture of solidarity with a particular issue or group with a beautiful picture referencing the topic, whereas Twitter might be useful to further trend a hashtag that has gained momentum in its popularity and power in its meaning. Being flexible and mobile with your social media presence allows you to be adept at communicating with a variety of different communities, similar to the ways in which being bi- or trilingual allows individuals to have richer and more diverse conversations and interactions, both within and outside their communities of origin. Clinicians should dedicate time to becoming familiar with these social media platforms not only for their own marketing and communication, but so they can also become good consumers of social media in order to stay on top of social movements and events that impact the community and subsequently their clients.
Be Prepared for Feedback
Expressing one’s views on social issues does not occur in a vacuum, so taking a position on a certain topic often invites either support or criticism from the community, especially when this position is related to a hot-button issue. Before posting a position on social media, clinicians should think about their ability to tolerate the potential negative and positive ramifications. Given the intimate nature of psychotherapy, clinicians are often accustomed to receiving feedback from known entities, whether those persons are professors, colleagues, or clients. Given these traditional outlets for feedback, it can often feel uncomfortable to receive feedback from strangers and those not trained in psychology, given the lack of knowledge some may have on the field or on the clinician as a person. Many of us have had the mind-numbing experience of accidently scrolling through the comments section of an article on a popular media outlet such as the Huffington Post or CNN and reading comments that are simultaneously highly offensive and highly inaccurate. Before even posting the statement or picture to social media, a clinician should dedicate time to exploring the ways in which their statement could be misunderstood in order to prepare for certain critiques or to avoid those critiques altogether by making slight alterations to the statement. Conversely, a clinician must also prepare for the possibility of their post gaining incredible attention for its poignancy and ability to speak to a certain position. Overly positive feedback can be just as uncomfortable for some as negative feedback, especially if the topic shared is personal or if the clinician is, by nature, a private person and did not intend for the message to have such a wide audience. When this occurs, it is important for the clinician to rely on a support system of those with previous experience managing the “spotlight” and who can provide meaningful information to help the clinician navigate this unique and important opportunity.
The power of the internet is vast but it can be harnessed via an organized and thoughtful social media response to social justice issues. Clinicians have the responsibility to participate in the communal discussion of the issues facing our community and to provide both accurate and meaningful discourse to help filter out misinformation and combat fearmongering. We, as clinicians, have an important role to play in our community, and social media is an important tool for disseminating helpful and healthy information.