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Social Media is not always a healthy place – Protecting yourself Online

This is a community built by people dealing with mental illness

This community is made up of people struggling with mental illness – and that includes the creators in our community. It is so important to remember that the creators you watch are dealing with mental illness and are going to be affected by those mental illnesses – that they are on that journey just the same as everyone else, and that they (like everyone) are not fully healed – because nobody is ever fully healed. Social media is deceptive because people only post what they want and when they want to so what you see is very curated and even if they are doing their best to be authentic, it’s not going to be an accurate representation of real life. You’re going to have a warped perspective of who these creators are, and often that warped perspective will imagine these creators to be ‘better’ than they are, because people naturally want to share when they are stable – as they should. 

All of this to say, sometimes your favorite creators will share things when they’re not stable – often when they shouldn’t be. It may not be clear to you, though, because the mask of social media is deceptive and it can be easy to be fooled by a smile, a filter, and a familiar face that you trust. It’s important to remember that the creators that you trust are also struggling and might not always be ‘right’. That they make mistakes and that they might be in the middle of an episode and you might not even be aware of it. This is why it’s important to pay attention to the content you’re hearing and not just the face you trust – to be able to think for yourself and to know that you can disagree with someone even if you’re a ‘fan’ of theirs – which takes us into our next segment – parasocial relationships.

Parasocial Relationships

What is a Parasocial Relationship and why is it a particular issue in our community?

The term Parasocial Relationship refers to when a person imagines having a relationship with someone they don’t actually know, such as a celebrity or an influencer. This is particularly relevant and dangerous when it comes to social media and especially mental health communities when we’re talking about very intimate and serious things like trauma. It’s very easy for people to develop parasocial relationships with a creator who speaks to them about things that no one has ever talked to them about before and they feel understood for the first time ever and like that creator is talking directly to them. Like they’re their friend. 

Now let’s say a creator responds to someone’s comments a few times, interacts with them on livestreams a few times and recognizes their username, maybe even has a little inside joke with them. Now that person has a full parasocial relationship with that creator and views them as someone they know when really they don’t. They’re not friends – they’re not a part of that person’s life. The creator knows nothing about them beyond a random username and a profile picture and what they happen to comment. Not what they look like, what they do for work. But the commenter feels like they know them because all their mental health videos were talking right to them.

Avoiding parasocial relationships is a responsibility that falls on the shoulders of both the viewers and the creator. The viewers should not be obsessing over a creator and should not be getting to that level. The creator should also be understanding that they have a power and a level of responsibility especially when talking about intense and traumatic and deeply personal things to not feed into parasocial relationships when talking to a vulnerable audience base. 

Understanding that people make mistakes (And not needing an apology video to see that)

It can be very tempting to just want to agree with your favorite creators because they’re your favorite creators. We want to support the people we like and that’s natural. Sometimes, though, we need to be able to put those things aside and be able to look at things critically. People make mistakes and people do things that aren’t okay. Especially when we’re talking about a community of mentally ill people. Mentally ill people are going to make mistakes and have bad judgement calls sometimes. It’s okay to recognize that. What’s ethical as a viewer and what’ll be best for your own mental health is to be able to keep your critical thinking as you watch videos and not just automatically agree because they’re your ‘fav’ but instead be able to watch a video from your favorite creator and say ‘wow you know what they really missed the mark there. That wasn’t okay.’ or ‘Wow I really disagree with this one. That doesn’t make them a bad person. But I really don’t think they’re right.’. It doesn’t mean you have to stop watching their content. People can disagree, people can make mistakes, people can change. But it’s a lot healthier to be able to think critically and recognize when you disagree from the start than to hop on a bandwagon just because you want to agree with someone because they’re them, only for them to have to make an apology video for you to realize you shouldn’t have supported that statement in the first place and you bent your morals just because you wanted to agree with your favorite creator.

Spotting Red Flags

Reminder: Just because you see a red flag doesn’t mean that is a definite sign that that is a bad or dangerous person. Someone can behave in a way that sends up a red flag for you and that can make you be more cautious about that particular advice they gave surrounding that one topic – that doesn’t mean you have to stay away from them as a person or think that they’re evil. This is exactly why it’s so important to be able to spot red flags, though, because you need to be able to discern when something isn’t quite right because if you just eat up everything a creator says (especially one who’s mentally ill and will get things wrong sometimes), and they’re giving mental health and life advice, you could be taking some bad advice that is directed towards your mental health that could have some deep and detrimental effects.

Being able to spot red flags with anyone is a very important skill for survivors of trauma and abuse to learn. More often than not survivors tend to have been essentially ‘trained’ by their abusers to be more easily manipulated and therefore more susceptible to future manipulation than others. It can be hard for survivors to spot those red flags so especially when looking at creators – especially creators who are, themselves mentally ill, who are being put on a pedestal and wielding a lot of power, it’s important for the viewers to be able to spot red flags if and when they may come up. Here are some tips on how to do that…

Identifying Red Flags

  • Trust your gut. If something feels off or uncomfortable, pay attention to that.
  • Look for inconsistencies. If what someone says doesn’t match up with their actions, that can be a red flag. For example, if they claim to value honesty but they lie to you, or if they claim to support you but they regularly put you down or criticize you, those are examples of inconsistent behaviors that could be red flags.
  • Look out for controlling behavior. If someone is trying to control your actions or decisions, that is a massive red flag. Controlling behaviors can include telling you what to wear, trying to control your schedule, or even observing/monitoring your communication with others.
  • Watch how they treat others. If someone regularly mistreats or disrespects others, that’s a red flag. How someone treats others can be a good indicator of their character.
  • Pay attention to signs of manipulation. If someone tries to manipulate or guilt-trip you, this is a red flag. Manipulative behavior can include things like playing the victim, using emotional blackmail, or gaslighting.
  • Watch their response to criticism. If someone becomes defensive or aggressive when faced with criticism, that is a red flag. Healthy individuals are able to accept constructive criticism and work to improve themselves. If someone reacts with hostility, they may have deeper issues.

Overall, identifying red flags is an important skill in protecting yourself and building healthy relationships. By trusting your gut, looking for inconsistencies and signs of controlling behavior, watching how they treat others, paying attention to signs of manipulation, and watching their response to criticism, you can identify any potential issues early on and make informed decisions about how to proceed. Remember red flags do not need to be dealbreakers, they’re just warnings for you to look out for – a signal that there’s something there that is not fully healthy that might need some work – identifying that early on allows you to make that informed decision on whether or not you want to put in that work or not with that person. 

Red flags to look for when engaging with mental health social media creators

  • Offering ‘Quick fix’ solutions. Mental health is a complex issue and there are rarely quick fixes. If creators are offering simple fixes to complex problems, this could be a sign that they’re oversimplifying the issue or trying to use sensationalism to simply gain followers or build their brand.
  • They encourage you to stop taking medication without consulting your doctor/don’t mention (or seem to care about) consulting your doctor. If an influencer encourages you to stop taking a prescribed medication for mental health conditions without consulting your doctor first, that’s an extremely dangerous red flag. Always consult your doctor before making changes to your medications.
  • They claim expertise without credentials. Be cautious about any influencer who presents themselves as an expert on mental health without any formal training or qualifications. It’s important to seek advice from qualified professionals. Patients have valuable things to add to the conversation but it’s very important to be clear that that’s the standpoint they’re coming from – the patient standpoint, not that of an expert in the field. If they’re claiming expertise and they’re not qualified, that’s a red flag.
  • They promote unproven treatments or therapies. It’s very important to research treatments thoroughly and consult medical professionals before trying any new treatments. These creators may be doing a brand deal or partnership – trying to boost their personal brand by promoting these treatments and that could be very dangerous.
  • They prioritize engagement over genuine help. Some creators may prioritize likes, engagement, and shares, over genuine help for their audience. Be very cautious of creators who seem more focused on building their brand/social presence/image than helping their followers with mental health issues.

A General Guide to Online safety

Of course every situation and scenario will be different, but this is a guideline for online safety to refer to.

  • Be mindful of oversharing: Be careful of what you share on social media platforms and what you share with people you meet online. Think twice before sharing things like your location, routines, place of work, etc. If someone messages you and starts asking you for personal information like this or immediately begins asking for information like your age, gender, etc, that can be a red flag.
  • Trust your gut: If something feels off with an online friendship or too good to be true, it’s important to take a step back and reevaluate the situation.
  • Be selective with online friends: Take time before you consider a stranger online a personal friend. Do everything you can do verify their identity to the best of your ability.
  • Utilize the block feature: If someone is making you uncomfortable or you no longer wish to communicate with them, block them. If they have been abusive, report them.

Developing Online Friendships in a Mental Health/Neurodivergent-Centered Space

Finding friends online but not letting those replace your ‘IRL’ friends

Finding people who can relate to your experiences and who you feel can ‘understand’ you perhaps more than others you’ve talked to before is a wonderful and valuable thing. However, it is important to be aware of those friendships taking over or replacing other relationships in your life. This is especially relevant if you realize that all of your friendships that you regularly engage in are online friendships. Online friendships are incredibly valuable, but it is also incredibly valuable to have friendships with people in person, and it can be easy to let yourself not invest energy in seeking those out when you find people who you feel understand a part of you that perhaps those others might not ‘get’. What is key in remembering is that spending time with those who are different is so important for growth and for keeping yourself comfortable and feeling safe in the world. If you can’t spend time with a friend and feel comfortable who might not fully understand what you’re going through but loves and supports you, how are you going to go out in the world and feel comfortable around strangers? 

Don’t restrict your friendships to people who are struggling with the same things as you

Additionally, it is incredibly important aside from the online vs. offline topic, to have relationships with people who have different life experiences. If you are struggling with severe mental illness – while it might sometimes feel comforting to be able to relate to others who also struggle with mental illness because you can understand similar struggles, it is actually a really wonderful idea to try and form connections with people who are more stable when possible. Surrounding yourself only with others who are also struggling – especially all with the same disorder – is often a recipe for disaster. While support groups can be wonderful, make sure to diversify your support system outside of these support groups and don’t have your friend pool stem solely from these groups. 

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