The concept of ‘digital citizenship’ — the way we engage with the online world — is a growing consideration for anyone with an online presence. #PinkArgyle wellbeing director Gearoid Towey chatted with psychologist and “digital nutrition” expert Jocelyn Brewer about what this means for athletes and for the rest of us.
Q: Athletes have to juggle being a ‘brand’ (for their team and their sponsors), being a role model, and being an authentic person. How can athletes find that balance on social media?
The balance will be slightly different for everyone. First up, an athlete should consider their personality type; their own engagement with social media (do they find it useful or interesting?); and their skill and comfort with using the platforms and sharing posts (does storytelling and creativity come naturally?)
Some athletes’ personal lives might be very much part of their online content – their kids, partners, home and off-court/off-duty lives will feature as often as their sport. Others will choose to carefully draw boundaries around what they share publicly and what they keep private.
Social media followers are savvy about the difference between “real” and curated or sponsored content. Likewise, they can tell if an image has been set up for product placement or if it’s a more candid shot. Athletes will probably need to share at least a little of their personal lives with their followers, so that their followers feel like they see the real person behind the brand. That said, social media followers will also be keen to see inspirational posts — something that positions the athlete as someone to aspire to – not just the #nomakeup kind of bare reality. Regardless of the type of content, it’s always important to think before you post.
Getting the balance right can be tricky. If these are all new skills and ideas, and generally quite far from an athlete’s interests and abilities, I’d suggest seeking support from their team’s social media manager for a bit of deeper guidance or engaging a content creation and curation service to help with some strategies.
Q: Juggling all this can be draining on time and psychological resources. What healthy digital nutrition habits would you suggest that athletes develop?
Whether you’re an athlete or not, I suggest the 3Ms of digital nutrition: be mindful, meaningful and moderate. By keeping these three concepts in mind when dedicating precious time to social media, you will be more positively engaged and focused and less likely to fall down rabbit holes or post mindlessly.
1. Mindful in that you are present to your actions, you have moment-to-moment awareness of, and responsibility over, your activities online and how these impact not just other aspects of your life but other people, too.
2. Meaningful in that you have a sense of purpose and clarity regarding what you’re reading, commenting on or participating in. That the activities contribute, even in a small way, to your goals and values.
3. Moderate in that you’re able to regulate and temper your habits and usage and avoid negative impacts across other aspects of your life. Moderation means that you both use technology in moderated amounts of time, but also moderate what you say and how you react to things that show up in your online world.
Q: Trolling and bullying seems to be part and parcel of the online world. How can athletes deal with this?
This is quite a tricky one, and something that needs to be considered in the context of the sport and any issues arising out of player scandals or other current events. Sometimes the team PR folks will have a clear communication to share as a blanket response to big issues, but for those copping random personal jibes there are a few ways to approach it.
In some cases, the adage ‘Don’t feed the trolls’ applies and it’s best to ignore one-off commenters or criticisms. For those who make abusive, discriminatory or racist comments, muting or blocking can be effective. Occasionally, it might also be effective to retweet or repost the people making abusive comments or silly remarks. This public ‘calling out’ highlights the prevalence and impact of abusive behaviour. However, this approach can be fraught and an athlete should carefully consider the ramifications before doing this, not least because supporters will then pile on the troll, which can compound the problem.
All social media platforms have systems by which you can report abuse – it’s important that they are used (so that the platforms have a good sense of the prevalence of the issues). In any instance where an athlete’s feel physically threatened or endangered, calling/reporting the issue to the police is essential.
Q: Recent events in the Australian media has highlighted the responsibility that comes with having a large following. What should athletes be thinking about?
Anyone who uses social media takes on a responsibility to participate in the online space in a sensible and informed manner. The networked nature of social media means that even people with only small follower numbers can get likes, shares and attention. This is obviously amplified when you have a large following.
It’s important to consider that sharing particular views, beliefs, associations or connections can influence followers both positively and negatively. Some of your own personal values or stances might be best kept separate from your public-facing sporting profile. Even by liking a tweet or photo you are implying support and this can be seen by followers.
There is also the issue of #fakenews. Always ensure what you do say, support or share is fact-based and fact-checked. Getting caught up in an issue and sharing information, petitions or memes that turn out to be not-quite-factually-correct can create PR issues for you, your team and your sponsors. Not to mention sending out confusing mixed-messages to followers.
Q: How can athletes manage/regulate their emotions when posting or responding on social media?
Being able to step back, breathe, think and not react in the moment is very useful when confronted with something unexpected online. We feel we must be lightning-quick in our replies, when in fact saying nothing publicly and dealing with it offline can be more helpful.
Call your coach, a friend or family member and process it offline first. Consider not only the different ways of responding but also the intention or perspective of the person posting/commenting. Like with dealing with online abuse, it’s usually better to take a higher position, say nothing or be confident you’re going to nail your response without generating a tidal wave of further unhelpful discussion.
Gearoid Towey is a four-time Olympic rower, a former rowing world champion and the founder of Crossing the Line, an Australian-based organization devoted to athlete development and wellbeing. The Irishman was appointed EF Education First – Drapac p/b Cannondale’s wellbeing director ahead of the 2017 season and works with the team’s riders and staff throughout the season.
With a portion of the #SaveArgyle funds earmarked for athlete development, Towey’s work with the team has become part of a broader initiative that now includes educational opportunities offered by new team partner and majority owner EF Education First. We’ve invited Towey to pen a bi-monthly wellbeing column to facilitate a better understanding of how our commitment to investing in the whole athlete translates into action throughout the season.