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One in four doctors experience social media harassment, study finds

Experts say pandemic-related posts are often met with backlash on social media

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There’s no question that consumers’ social media habits can have a direct correlation on their well-being, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, experts have found that too much time on social media can also affect consumers’ mental health. 

Now, a new study conducted by researchers from Northwestern University has found that social media could be particularly troublesome for medical professionals. According to their findings, around a quarter of doctors have experienced harassment on social media, and these attacks have only intensified since the start of the pandemic. 

“If anything, our data is probably an underestimate of the true extent of attacks and harassment post-pandemic since so many doctors started to advocate for public health measures during the pandemic and have been met with an increasingly polarized populace emboldened by leadership that devalues science and fact,” said researcher Dr. Vineet Arora. 

Doctors need better support online

For the study, the researchers analyzed nearly 500 responses to an online survey that asked physicians to answer yes or no to just two questions: (1) had they had experienced sexual harassment on social media and (2) had they had been generally attacked or harassed on social media. The survey also gave participants an opportunity to go into further detail about their experiences. 

The researchers learned that one out of every four doctors involved in the study had experienced harassment on social media in varying degrees of intensity. While the pandemic has provided the opportunity for health care providers to use social media as a way to encourage consumers to practice social distancing and wear masks, the backlash to these types of posts have been as severe as online death threats or verbal threats at work. 

The study also revealed that online sexual harassment was more common for female doctors, which the researchers think is worrisome. Many doctors, like consumers in any profession, utilize social media as a way to advance their careers, and with this kind of harassment, it wouldn’t be surprising to see many female doctors abandon their online profiles. 

“Women in medicine are already less likely to hold leadership positions or be the first or last authors of research, so disproportionately abstaining from a platform used for collaboration and networking due to sexual harassment and perosnal attacks should be a cause for concern,” said researcher Tricia Pendergrast. 

Protecting doctors online

As important as doctors are in the field, their presence on social media can also be just as important for reaching a wider audience and advocating for better health care practices. The researchers hope that more work is done to better protect doctors on social media so that their messages can spread without the threat of harassment. 

“Doctors and other health care workers are already facing unprecedented stress and mental health challenges from their work,” said Dr. Arora. “Any stress from being online will compound that and put them at risk, especially as doctors are being asked to be more vocal on social media to promote vaccination and more.” 

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