Last week Cleveland Browns’ quarterback Baker Mayfield announced that he would be leaving social media for the foreseeable future – citing the toxic environment he had faced after a tumultuous season. The Heisman Trophy winner, who was selected by the Browns’ first overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, is just the latest athlete to throw in the towel when it comes to social media platforms.
Today, it is all too common for athletes and celebrities to find themselves in the crosshairs from critics – and many times it can be extremely personal. This type of criticism impacts all people on a mental level and athletes feel it as much as anyone else.
“It affects them the same way it affects anyone else,” explained Tom Kannon, DNP, PMHNP-BC, assistant dean of the Online Graduate Nursing and assistant professor at Regis College.
“Constant criticism can result in negative self-talk, lowered self-esteem, frustration, irritability,” warned Kannon. “If that continues long enough then it could lead to depression and anxiety.”
While very successful people tend to have good supports and coping mechanisms already established – and that can help bolster them against such negativity – if inundated with it long enough, it will erode even the strongest psyche.
“For some people, the criticism can result in lower self-appreciation and increased self-defeating thoughts,” added Kannon. “For others, it could possibly create synthesis for refocusing and ‘rising to the challenge’ to prove their critics wrong. A large part of how that goes depends on the person’s view of themselves, their self-concept.”
Many of us may like to believe we don’t care what other people think of us, but that often isn’t the case. For an athlete who is in the spotlight the negative comments can be impossible to escape.
“Criticism can affect people mentally and behaviorally,” noted Dr. Nathaniel N. Ivers, associate professor and chair, Department of Counseling, Wake Forest University. “It can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, as well as lead to lower self-esteem. It also can affect how people view and relate to others, such as increased emotional reactivity towards or isolation from others, as well as increased defensiveness.”
Social media makes it easier than ever for fans – and critics alike – to tear down athletes like never before. Baker Mayfield saw the need to step back from the harmful commentary he was being exposed to on the platforms.
The Schadenfreude Effect
One of the biggest problems today is that social media makes it so easy for individuals to come under such personal attacks on a public platform.
“There is a psychological concept called Schadenfreude that suggests that people have a tendency to find joy in learning about, witnessing, or participating in another person’s troubles or failures,” added Ivers. “In fact, studies suggest that individuals with lower self-esteem tend to experience greater joy in witnessing someone’s humiliation or failures than do individuals with higher self-esteem. Some of the vitriol that professional athletes, politicians, and celebrities face in the media and on social media can be explained by Schadenfreude. Individuals with low self-esteem are engaging in an ill-fated attempt to bolster their psychological equanimity by knocking someone else down.”
While Schadenfreude exists in all relational settings, social media could provide people unprecedented access to high-profile people.
“It is important that people protect themselves from toxic environments that degrade their sense of self worth and mental well-being,” said Ivers. “It may still hurt athletes or high profile individuals to know that people think negatively about them and are likely talking about them on social media, but the effect will be less than if they are consuming the negativity directly and constantly.”
A Celebrity, A Brand
Where the issue becomes more complicated – especially for athletes – is that they are more than a person at times. They are a brand ambassador, and part of their livelihood comes from their ability to market products. As social media is used to promote said brands, it can be difficult for the athletes to retreat from those platforms.
“Baker Mayfield is a human being, entitled to many freedoms, but he is also a professional athlete and a brand,” explained Melissa Davies, Ph.D., assistant professor of Sport Administration at Ohio University.
“He represents his own brand, the Browns, and the NFL, as well as other companies he works to endorse,” said Davies. “Each of these partnerships are confirmed via contractual agreement which dictate the precise relationship and duties owed between Mayfield and the organization. On the one hand then, Mayfield must consider his own well-being and that of his family, while weighing the contractual agreements and earning potential he has as a public persona.”
Brands regularly pay large sums to work with professional athletes, who then endorse their products via advertising in their commercials, print and digital ads, and on social media. Sometimes these brands will have athletes appear on their company social media pages, however more commonly today, the brand will pay the athlete or celebrity to post the advertisement or endorsement on the celebrity’s social media pages as a form of influencer marketing.
“The brands then gain the advantage of getting in front of the athlete’s large and targeted following,” said Davies. “While these contracts can be lucrative to supplement athlete’s other streams of income, having and engaging in social media is not one of the Cleveland Browns or the NFL’s contractual obligations for athletes. It appears then that Mayfield has weighed his own earning potential on social media with the opportunity to reduce tension in his personal life and opted out.”
Time Out – But Will It Help?
For Mayfield he may tune out of social media, but today it is impossible to escape what is said – likely even more than trying to avoid TV or the newspaper. In fact, news of Mayfield’s departure from social media has only cast him in the spotlight again – where articles such as this one now focus on the reasons. Even those who may not have followed football may suddenly know the troubles he faced on and off the field this season.
Still, departing social media could present some benefits for Mayfield – as well as others who are finding the platforms to be more negative than positive.
“Leaving social media can definitely have a positive impact on the individual,” said Kannon. “Having any negativity removed from your life can lower stress, much like the old adage ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ One of the hardest things for elite athletes and high-profile people to do is to find a way to leave all the negative comments behind, since they will still more than likely still see it on TV, in newspapers/magazines, and the Internet in general not just social media.”
By taking a break from the social platforms, Mayfield won’t face the deluge of negativity.
“(He might) still be aware of the criticisms but the benefit would be two-fold,” Kannon continued. “One, exposure to the criticism would definitely be reduced; two criticisms in newspapers, magazines, news/TV shows would have an identity to go along with the criticism instead of it coming from some nameless source which allows the person to more accurately weigh the credulity of the comment.”