How bad is social media for professional athletes’ mental health?

How bad is social media for professional athletes’ mental health?

Despite having existed for less than two decades, social media is an ever-present part of our lives these days.

For professional footballers, social media has been a force for good in many ways. It allows you to communicate directly with fans, and gives you the ability to directly tell your online community about your latest news and projects that you might want them to support.

Indeed, Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals was hugely led by his ability to spread the word and post his government petition online.

However, the trouble with social media is that it has now also been associated with a range of mental health issues. From self-esteem and wellbeing to anxiety and depression, online spaces have become a breeding ground for hateful speech and relentless insults that can have dire consequences for your mental health.

Footballers are far from immune from these effects. And, in a profession that requires you to be at the top of your game all the time, anything that negatively affects your mental health should be taken very seriously.

Read on to discover the issues that professional footballers can face with social media, and how you might be able to better protect yourself from them.

Access to 24/7 abuse from rival supporters

While rival fans trying to put you off your stride on matchday is part and parcel of the modern game, there’s no condoning some of the terrible behaviour that supporters can engage in. And unfortunately, social media makes it possible for players to receive abuse along these lines at any time of day.

According to Sky Sports, two in five Premier League players received abuse on Twitter during the 2020/21 season.

You’ve also no doubt seen the news stories of many high-profile players being racially abused on social media, and you may even have teammates who have been subject to such vile treatment.

Reading such content can have serious consequences for your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.

One social media manager who works with many footballers was interviewed by Wired and described the extent to which he has seen the players whose accounts he manages be affected by the abuse.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t read the comments, and don’t check your requests.’ I see some players doing it and they’re really affected,” they said.

By being on social media sites, you open yourself to the risk of viewing abuse, which could have a detrimental effect on your overall sense of wellbeing.

Increased risk of anxiety and depression

Beyond your subjective sense of self, social media can also cause diagnosable mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.

Research reported by Healthline found a link between social media use and depression in adults between the ages of 19 and 32 – crucial years in your playing career.

If you’re early on in your playing career, the effects can be even more severe. According to a survey of 1,000 Generation Z individuals reported by the Independent, 41% said they were quitting using the platforms entirely because they made them “anxious, sad, or depressed”.

These issues can have a serious impact, straining your relationships with coaches and teammates or generally making you feel less satisfied with your career, even though you’ve been incredibly successful.

Social media is addictive

One of the biggest issues that comes with social media is that while viewing the content may damage your mental health, it’s also highly addictive.

As social media is purposefully designed to be addictive and keep you on the platforms, it can be difficult to stop using these services. In fact, the Guardian reported on social media bosses who don’t use their own platforms precisely because they know how addictive they are.

This creates a worrying vicious cycle in which you read or view content that makes you anxious, depressed, or question your self-worth. But, because the platforms are addictive and make you want to stay on them, you end up coming back to consume more of the same, harmful posts.

You should be keeping an eye on any behaviours you have that could be considered “addictive”. But one that has serious implications for your mental health should certainly have you thinking about trying to reduce its impact.

You can improve your relationship with social media

While all these elements make it seem like social media is exclusively a force for bad, there are good sides to it too. As a result, you might be hoping to find ways to improve your relationship with social media, continuing to use these services without damaging your mental health.

Read on for four tips that could help you to do exactly that.

1. Create a timeline you want to view

Firstly, try to create a newsfeed that you want to view. Only follow the accounts you want to see and avoid using “discover” pages where you could see content that might adversely affect your mental health.

By carefully curating your timeline, you can simply avoid the posts that cause you feelings of anxiety and depression.

2. Don’t read direct messages

While platforms and the police have started to crack down on social media abuse, particularly with incidents of racism, it’s going to be an uphill battle to entirely prevent players from receiving abusive messages.

So, the best solution for now is to not open and interact with direct messages from people you don’t know.

3. Don’t search your own name

It can only be a mistake to search your name, particularly in a week where you’ve lost a match or had a difficult game. Seeking out the abuse that supporters and rivals might be writing about you can’t do you any good, so try to resist the temptation entirely.

4. Set time limits for your social apps

Most phones will allow you to set time limits on how long you spend on certain apps. So, if you want to spend less time on social media, set up limits on the apps that you regularly use.

This way, you can still use the apps, view content, and post if you want to, safe in the knowledge that you won’t waste more of your time than you want in using them.

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