‘IF you’re seeing stuff online which makes you feel angry, sad, worried, stressed or annoyed, this can build up and start having a negative impact on your life.” So begins the advice from charity YoungMinds on “social media and mental health” for children and young people. But for many adults who are active online, this just sounds like a day ending in “y”.

There’s an old joke where a man goes to the doctor and says “Doctor, every time I move my arm like this it hurts”. The doctor replies: “Don’t move your arm like that then.”

Much in the same way, the common-sense solution if you’re upset by what you’re seeing online is not to look at it. Filter what you see, curate a positive feed, and take a step back as needed. Switch off altogether if you can.

But for people whose jobs – whether paid or voluntary – are reliant on social media to get their message across, to raise their profile, or simply to keep in touch, switching off can feel all but impossible.

Such is the nature of how we consume our news, our entertainment, our politics and even our activism that producing any of the above without engaging online can seem like a resignation to irrelevance.

The sad irony is that the people least able to disengage from platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are those who are the most likely to be the target of unrelenting criticism, if not abuse.

The higher profile the person, the more inevitable it becomes that dealing with “trolls” or the righteously angry will be par for the course. And while there’s an important distinction to be made between those two types of keyboard warrior (we’ve all been one at some point), the end result for the recipient is likely to be much the same.

The scale of this problem in Scottish politics has reached the point that, two weeks ago, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon felt it necessary to take to Twitter to encourage people – particularly women and those from BAME communities – standing for selection or election to “stand strong and don’t be silenced” by “bullies”.

At the same time, she urged those on her own “side” to “leave out the misogynistic abuse”.

This came after one young woman campaigning to become a candidate for the SNP in the Holyrood election was subject to days of belligerent comments, bullying and, yes, outright misogyny from members of her own party. But this is far from an isolated incident; rather, it is just the latest in what seems an endless cycle of “Twitter storms”, of which women, young(er) people and minorities are most often the target.

We could argue about the whys and wherefores, but the question at hand is not about whether you agree with someone politically, but whether you think that an ability to withstand this kind of experience should be a prerequisite to involvement in public life.

If it is, there are many people who will simply continue to say “no thanks” and choose to enjoy their lives instead.

As former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale tweeted in response to Sturgeon’s comments, such a disengagement would be “a loss for them, but a far bigger loss for us collectively as a society and country”.

And while there is a lot said (if very little actually done by social media giants) about online abuse, this perhaps evades the even trickier issue of how it affects a person to spend significant portions of their day connected to a stream of low-level hostility.

Because even if every comment which clearly crosses a line was eliminated, the cumulative impact of a flood of individually innocuous but negative interactions would still take a toll on the most resilient of people.

Just as the dust settled from this most recent furore, another SNP politician became the centre of a real scandal and brought these issues to the fore (at least of my mind) once again.

In the hours after Margaret Ferrier made the announcement – complete with Twitter statement – of her cross-country Covid caper and its various plot twists, I was struck by the strangeness of watching this story play out in the age of social media.

Ferrier’s original tweet gained 9600 quote tweets (where users add their own comments) and 14,200 replies.

That’s nearly 24,000 messages sent to one woman (who incidentally has fewer than 17,000 followers) on Twitter alone. This doesn’t even include the people who wrote out their own tweets and tagged Ferrier into them. I haven’t conducted an analysis, but I’ll venture a guess that the overwhelming majority of these tweets were not sympathetic.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that Margaret Ferrier deserves sympathy for wildly disregarding the rules that others are expected to abide by and risking public health in the process.

However, I do think this is one among many examples which highlight the overwhelming combination that being in the “public eye” and on social media creates.

IT has always been the case that people in such positions could end up on the wrong end of a news story and attract considerable negative attention. But it wasn’t until recently that people had that attention in their pockets 24/7, or that the general population felt entitled to have a round-the-clock direct line to the subject of their ire (well-deserved or not).

In some ways this is a reflection of a change in culture which affects us all: even people who are not high profile are expected to be contactable at all times, and it can be hard not to get sucked in to checking and checking and checking our notifications (it’s even been scientifically proven that this experience is addictive). The main difference is that most of us usually aren’t being contacted by quite so many people who think we are the worst thing to happen since new-recipe Irn Bru.

It can’t come as a surprise when politicians are increasingly speaking out about the impacts of the job on their mental health.

This isn’t to say that social media is the sole culprit, but I’m not sure we need to conduct a scientific study to know it can’t be helping.

With several politicians in Scotland and across the UK having recently cited online abuse as a factor in their decision to stand down, this poses a genuine concern about the implications for democracy.

Of course, it’s not only politicians who are affected by all this. Journalists and commentators are also routinely subject to “pile-ons”, and there’s a noticeably greater intensity of fury involved when the journalists in question are women. For campaigners too, from the established charity sector to grassroots groups, dealing with social media “backlash” has become just another part of the job.

Often when these conversations arise, the focus is on the need for social media companies to clamp down on “offenders”. But aren’t there also deeper questions to ask about whether people should be expected to be active on social media in the first place when it demonstrably puts them at risk and gives rise to an enormous amount of pressure to be “on” at all times?

On the other hand, we all have a responsibility – even those of us who are always reasonable and correct – to consider whether and when we truly need to personally notify someone of our disapproval.

I’d take things one step further than Nicola Sturgeon and say that while disagreement is, of course, “what democracy is all about”, we also need to understand that if anyone is to maintain the will to engage at all, we also have to respect the right to disengage.

Nobody should feel forced to retreat in the face of bullies, but there’s more than one way to be strong and it doesn’t have to take place online to make a difference.