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Avoiding Social Media Traps

Social media tends to amplify the extremes of academic life, exacerbating imposter syndrome.

· ORT Times

This piece was originally published in the ORT Times February 2021 Edition

Social media is an invaluable tool not only for advertising research and professional networking, but more importantly, for amplifying the voices of minoritized populations in the pursuit of a more inclusive academy. Yet, while the potential negative ramifications of social media use on mental health are well documented, these pitfalls are often overlooked by the ever-growing “Academic Twitter” community. Indeed, academics on social media are not immune from these platforms’ tendency to amplify extreme experiences, both positive and negative—the former of which can exacerbate “imposter syndrome” for trainees.

Studies show that social media use leads one's self-worth to be excessively based on comparisons to others, and in turn to feelings of jealousy and envy that can contribute to depression. In the academic setting, a frequent Twitter user might find themselves inundated by posts celebrating the success of a new publication, fellowship or grant and compare their personal productivity to that represented on their social media feed. For those early in their careers or facing a particularly challenging period in their research, this can quickly lead to the feelings of inadequacy or fraudulence associated with imposter syndrome.

It bears emphasizing that these dangers of social media are not unique to academia. This is one reason why calls to address the problem by suppressing all celebrations on Academic Twitter are certainly not a viable remedy, but instead an archetypal example of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater”. In fact, such celebrations are often a tool to combat imposter syndrome for trainees and early-career researchers. Indeed, during the pandemic social media provides one of the only outlets for young scientists to have their victories validated by their peers.

Instead, maintaining a sense of context when we consume and produce content is a more feasible solution for maintaining a healthy relationship with social media. One end of this spectrum is fully within an individual’s control: consciously recognizing that the most amplified social media posts tend to highlight the highest highs and lowest lows of academic life. The other requires the engagement of the academic community at large: posting and amplifying content that recognizes the day-to-day challenges of academic life. By highlighting the obstacles and failures inherent in the academic experience, as well as the vital work often deemed too monotonous for advertising via social media, the feed of the average Academic Twitter user will better reflect the reality of the academic experience.

These solutions require a more deliberate engagement with social media than is the norm. But identifying the problem is a pivotal step in the effort to enhance the positives of social media while mitigating the negatives. Indeed, social media is a great place for young researchers to find a community, even alongside the caveat that social media posts are rarely a full representation of the academic experience.