Social Media has made huge changes to our society within a lightning fast amount of time, some great and some that we are still figuring out. Things like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, give everyone a platform with the potential to reach millions of people. Literally everyone has access to the proverbial soap box (in fact I’m taking advantage of this system right now).
This is amazing in so many ways- grass root causes can spread like wildfire, everyday folks can make a difference in the political arena, we can access our news at warp speed, and professionals in every field can talk directly to us– helping us all access better healthcare, legal services, educational support, parenting strategies, etc. With this also comes the issue. Seriously, EVERYONE can give you advice on anything.
We are bombarded by posts, videos, podcasts, blogs, memes, Pinterest links, motivational quotes, and sound bites from everywhere. This is fantastic. And overwhelming. And inspiring. And dangerous. We are absorbing so much information all the time, that we often forget how to be savvy consumers.
We start to assume that just having a podcast, a blog, or a website means the author/speaker has expertise. They must know what they’re talking about right? We really don’t have the time anymore to vet someone’s credentials or expertise, so we assume they have them.
Professional Boudaries and Competence
As a mental health professional, I am careful (sometimes to the point of neurotic) about the content I post on my professional pages. I’m careful about my sources, not posting from junk news or spam sites. I also try to be mindful about making blanket statements, going outside of my professional “lane” or giving blanket advice (and yes, even I make mistakes).
As a therapist, I’m not going to give you advice on these topics (just to name a few):
- physical ailments
- legal issues
- birthing techniques
- dying your hair
- where to invest, how to make money
- how to teach a classroom full of kids
- or how to vote
I know that not only do I have an ethical obligation, but also a legal responsibility to stay within my own scope of competency.
Unfortunately, unlicensed professionals aren’t held to the same standards and there isn’t much recourse when they give bad advice. I have seen career estheticians market “spiritual and psychological” services, sales representatives ( with no medical or nutritional background) give nutritional advice, personal trainers give guidance on psychiatric mediation, essential oil reps ( without a medical or aromatherapy background) advertise the “cure” for depression and anxiety, “coaches” of all kinds claim they have the “answer” while simultaneously trying to undermine the mental health profession to their clients with scare tactics and outright lies. I see it every single day and you probably do too.
Protecting Ourselves in the Era of the Wellness “Expert”
1. Check their credentials first
Even if you like someone’s posts, make sure you know what kind of background they have so you can proceed with that knowledge. Anyone can write a blog, start a podcast, make a beautiful website, and boast an impressive following. That does not mean they have advanced training or knowledge in something. Often well-meaning folks figure because THEY are healthy, have a good relationship, are a great parent, etc., that what works for them works for everyone, which leads to advice based on their own experiences ( instead of research). I don’t need to tell you that everyone is different and blanket advice can range from ineffective to downright dangerous. Make sure what whatever advice they’re giving is within their scope of competence and expertise.
2. Be cautious of the diagnosis trap
In my diagnosis and treatment classes in graduate school we were warned the very first day to avoid diagnosing friends and family members (in fact it’s unethical to do so). Why? Because when diagnoses aren’t made in the context of a non-biased party that doesn’t have a personal relationship with the client, it’s VERY easy to make whatever diagnoses we want fit in some way. When we studied Narcissists, it was amazing to “discover” all the closet “narcissists” in our lives. Somehow the same things happened when the chapter was on Bipolar disorder. Then Antisocial personality disorder. Then Borderline personality disorder. It’s much easier to make it about “them” instead of “us” and to make our own personal experiences fit the diagnostic criteria.
I cringe every time I see a pop psych article on Narcissists or “toxic” people because I know that there is going to be a wave of folks diagnosing everyone from their partner, to their professor. That’s not to say that there aren’t people who fit this criteria- there are, but when we make armchair diagnoses about the people around us it gives us license to stop examining OUR OWN behavior and responsibilities. (Please be aware that this does not mean that we should stay in emotionally or physically abusive relationships).
3. If it’s a great sound bite or fits on a wall plaque, be extra discerning
Depending on what source you read, some research shows that our attention spans are probably declining. It’s no wonder, our brains have to sift through an unprecedented amount of information constantly. The problem is, good mental health information doesn’t often make for great soundbites or memes. It’s something that many mental health professionals who have an online presence will tell you they struggle with. We are constantly trying to make meaningful or helpful information fit into a sentence or two or fit into a 3-minute video without giving bad advice or just regurgitating platitudes. and it’s DAMN HARD.
It’s so much easier to make a pretty graphic that says “Toxic people won’t change” without helping people discern:
- what IS “toxic”?
- How does it affect them?
- Do they play a role in the toxic exchange?
Just check out the number of “happy” quotes out there that seem benign at face value. They are super popular but often, actually discount things like: mental illness, valid feelings, trauma, privilege, etc. (for more on that check out my blog on toxic positivity here).
To wrap it all up
This is just a small list of ways to help you examine the mental and emotional health information you’re consuming. Social Media isn’t going anywhere, so we need to be vigilant about what we allow ourselves to ingest. If something doesn’t sit right with you ask yourself why. I invite you to get curious about the information you see and how you can use that information in a way that can support your own journey.