In this year of stress, disruption and isolation, farmers can use social media
to their advantage, harnessing its power to connect.

Photo Credit: Istock.com/Urupong

Make social media powerful and positive

It’s been a year to remember for farmers (and everyone else) in Canada, with the pipeline protests, the plane shot down in Iran, a new North American trade agreement, a pandemic and more, just in the first half of the year. It’s therefore important, especially in light of all the disruption and isolation of COVID-19, to protect and nurture our mental health. And while it’s a necessity for farmers to use social media platforms to stay abreast of information that impacts their operations, a closer look at social media use by farmers is likely warranted, in light of the tremendous impact it can have.

Many studies and surveys show a link between social media use and feeling depressed, anxious and disconnected. And getting into a vicious circle with it is rather easy. When you feel lonely or stressed, you turn to social media to feel connected and better; this increases your dissatisfaction, stress and loneliness, which leads to increased usage, and so the cycle goes.

However, as Manitoba-based marriage and family therapist Elan Jury notes, there are ways to use social media to feel connected and ease our stress. “We humans are wired for connection, and our relationships are an important buffer against stress and anxiety,” she says. “Farmers need to use social media and it’s certainly here to stay, but there are ways to use it in healthy ways. It’s like our relationship to anything or anyone, there is potential for positive benefits and potential for abuse or addiction, which in turn can impact our relationships with others.”

What is useful to you?

While today’s farmers certainly have to be plugged in to their social media platforms to get the latest information on the weather, pests and diseases, markets and more, Jury stresses that in both the ag-related info-sphere and the social sphere, the updates never stop coming. Trying to keep up with everything is not the wisest course. “Remind yourself that it’s likely OK to receive updates less often,” she says. “Start to pay attention to your usage and recognize whether you are in a viscous spiral of checking, and if you are, perhaps you need to start weaning yourself to longer intervals.” Jury notes that we humans receive an addictive hit of the brain chemical dopamine when we receive any sort of update. We should remember this and realize that weaning ourselves may not be easy.

Also, take a close look at what information you currently receive that is actually useful to successful farm operation. Honestly ask yourself if receiving non-essential updates is part of an attempt to feel better and distract yourself from the pressures you are dealing with. “Be aware of how you feel,” Jury says. “If you are feeling anxious, is it the negativity? It might be time to remove people from your feed, or stop looking at the comments. Maybe getting updates all at once is a better strategy.”

Some other ideas including looking into whether there is information overlap between your platforms. Perhaps you could ask fellow farmers what they have in their feeds and how they may have streamlined their social media use. And don’t forget the simple strategy of unplugging; Jury strongly encourages putting your device away at certain times of day and never taking it to bed.

Relationship impact

At the same time, start noticing how much you are actually connecting with the people who are important to you, to offer and receive support, laugh at life, celebrate achievements and brainstorm ideas to deal with challenges. You can certainly do this on social media, but you should also connect with loved ones in person where possible, on the phone, and in texts and emails. Jury says that over time, you’ll begin to see that strengthened connections really do help reduce feelings of overwhelm and isolation. “Even quick check-ins,” she says, “make a big difference.”

Also remember that making any type of change takes time. Jury believes we really have to give it two to three months to see the effects of a change, in this case to see if changing how you use social media is reducing your stress level, and how your increased efforts to build your relationships is doing the same.

Most importantly, don’t add further stress through changing your social media use. Take your time, look at it as an experimental process and you’ll get there.

Build relationships to reduce stress

In May, Farm Management Canada (FMC) released ground-breaking research results about farmers and stress in a report called “Healthy Minds, Healthy Farms”. Relationship building – and degradation –
is mentioned in several contexts.

The report points out that, among other unhelpful activities undertaken by farmers to try and reduce their stress (such as working more hours), they may withdraw socially from family and friends. As mentioned in the main story, in their isolation, farmers then may, in turn, increase their social media use, but this will likely only compound loneliness and stress.

The research behind this report also reveals a positive correlation between mental health and farm business management activities that positively influence farmer mental health, as well as mental health ‘supports’ that positively influence farm business management activities. Among these is building relationships with members of your farm business management support team. “Building [these] teams to help provide advice can alleviate some of the burdens of decision-making,” state the report’s authors. “When difficulties arise, it helps to know that a team of peers, family members and/or advisors has thought through different challenges and weighed in on a course of action.”

 

Another suggestion for relationship-building is mentioned by a study participant. “A lot of times, farmers will get together in the winter, and they will have breakfast together… Sometimes it’s good to get away from being alone with your own thoughts, and you get to share things that have gone wrong.”

Denise Rollin, FMC project manager, notes that one of the report’s main action items is to develop industry-wide strategies to address online harassment by the general public targeted at those in agriculture. She notes that if farmers feel safe when sharing their farming stories and their mental health struggles, their discussions can continue to reduce mental health stigma.

The report is available online at fmc-gac.com/healthymindshealthyfarms