The trouble with Dr Jessen

In the last couple of weeks the Royal College of General Practitioners published their Social Media Highway Code. As a professional with a longstanding interest in how social media can be used constructively in mental health, I’ve often been disappointed that most guidance being issued tends to focus only on the negatives and risks of this new form of communication. The Highway Code is a welcome antidote to that: it acknowledges the risks and and the need to behave online in a professional way. However, it also recognises that social media has rewards and opportunities. I highly recommend it not only to doctors but to all health professionals.

Which makes it unfortunate that today I got caught up in the absolutely atrocious online behaviour of a doctor. A TV doctor, no less.

I don’t actually watch the TV show Supersize vs Superskinny, hosted by Dr Christian Jessen. I work with children and adolescents with eating disorders, and watching a show about it feels a little like taking my work home with me. I know that some people with eating disorders have complained of experiencing triggers from the show.

Ilona Burton is a journalist who writes for the Independent about eating disorders. She writes passionaately and well about the subject, not least because she’s in recovery from an eating disorder herself. In 2012 she was nominated for the Mark Hanson Award for Digital Media in the Mind Media Awards. She also holds strong views about the content of Supersize vs Superskinny, which she regards as socially irresponsible.

Early today, an increasingly heated debate was building between Dr Jessen and Ilona.

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Dr Jessen then started retweeting Ilona to his 222,000 followers. The result was that Ilona started receiving tweets from Dr Jessen’s fans, some of them abusive. Ilona was clearly distressed by this, which really didn’t seem to concern Dr Jessen. For that reason I threw my own tuppence into the ring.

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I also tweeted him a link to the RCGP Social Media Highway Code, and suggested he pay attention to Section 7, “Treat Others with Consideration, Politeness and Respect.” He didn’t reply directly, but responded by retweeting me.

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The result was that I too started getting a large volume of tweets, which quickly turned into a Twitterstorm. As with the content being aimed at Ilona, some of the tweets I received were also hostile or downright abusive. It went on and on, lasting for several hours. This wasn’t helped by Dr Jessen retweeting more of my responses.

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Okay, maybe that last tweet by me was a little tetchy, but getting several hours of online abuse does that to me.

I’m a fairly opinionated tweeter, so I’m no stranger to getting hostile messages. I’ve had some nasty stuff thrown my way by supporters of UKIP, and also by people who object to the work of child protections services. I can honestly say that today was the worst and most intense level of trolling I’ve ever been subjected to.

I don’t feel I need any sympathy for that. I’m big enough and ugly enough to handle it. However, I’m saddened that it happened at the instigation of a fellow healthcare professional. I’m even more saddened that the brunt of it was also caught by someone who has lived experience of one of the very conditions that Dr Jessen talks about in his show.

Dr Jessen seems rather unrepentant about all this.

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What does the Social Media Highway Code say?

You have a right to express your views openly–but not to do so in a way that causes offence to others or infringes on their own rights….

When part of an online group, don’t be tempted into joining others in making derogatory comments or ‘ganging up’ on another individual – this behaviour could be regarded as ‘cyber-bullying’. Be wary of the power of the mob…

HEALTH WARNING: making derogatory,threatening or defamatory comments about others could have a harmful effect on your career. ‘I was just blowing off steam’ may be an honest explanation, but is not likely to be accepted as a valid justification by professional bodies or employers.

I hope Dr Jessen takes up my suggestion of reading the Highway Code.

Meanwhile, Ilona has posted her own thoughts on the matter in a vlog.

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8 thoughts on “The trouble with Dr Jessen

  1. Report him to the gmc for cyber bullying, cause that’s what it is! Before all this I was rather ambivalent about dr j. Now, I plain don’t like him.

  2. As I stated on Twitter, when I once caught a couple of seconds of this programme, I grieved for humanity. But, y’know, if that’s people’s thing, then it is. Fine.

    What is not fine is creating an internet-wide fuss because someone with patient experience of an ED has pointed out the possible triggers and generalisations of such a show. The fact that a CAMHS nurse specialising in EDs then got trolled for hours for politely highlighting a few legitimate issues adds to the programmer’s – and, in my view, the doctor’s – decreasing credibility.

  3. I think all parties need to look at their lack of wisdom in taking this into a public arena. I’m a teacher and would need to be MUCH more circumspect about work-related issues.
    Triggers. Surely the programme title and listing is itself enough of a trigger warning? USE THE OFF SWITCH.
    RTs, Trolling by followers. This is twitter folks, it’s a public arena – join battle there, expect it to spread fast.
    If you’ve got a professional issue with a colleague, write them a letter, speak to their boss, use professional platforms and associations but FFS don’t take it on twitter and then wonder why it gets all “gloves off”!

    • I have no problem with discussing professional issues on public forums such as Twitter – in fact I think when done well it can be an extremely positive thing. The Social Media Highway Code spells this out and I applaud the RCGP for doing so.

      BUT it has to be done responsibly. To be fair to Dr Jessen, it wasn’t him who called Ilona a “stupid bitch”. However, he seemed worryingly unconcerned about her obvious distress at having been addressed in that way. He also had plenty of opportunities to apologise or tone things down, and did not do so.

      To be perfectly frank, that doesn’t reflect well on him as a doctor.

  4. Hang on, so you called out another doctor for being unprofessional in a public forum… isn’t that in and of itself unprofessional behaviour on your part?

    Then when his fans (not him) responded aggressively, you took offense with him directly?

    You then go on to make the argument that you got techy with him (due to his fans) which sounds rather like;

    “‘I was just blowing off steam’ may be an honest explanation, but is not likely to be accepted as a valid justification by professional bodies or employers”

    I’m not a fan of his or the show (it strikes me as popularist psuedo-science), but putting that to one side I can’t really see why you and Ilona have rounded on the guy, simply for making the point that No, he doesn’t worry about the show triggering ED.

    • Hi Random

      Hang on, so you called out another doctor for being unprofessional in a public forum… isn’t that in and of itself unprofessional behaviour on your part?

      I did not (initially at least) “call out” Dr Jessen. I tweeted him directly and politely suggesting that he could engage with people more constructively. I did this because, whatever the rights and wrongs of his discussion with Ilona Burton, she was expressing distress at being called a “stupid bitch” and Dr Jessen was responding in a callous manner.

      Dr Jessen did not reply to my message, but instead retweeted it to his 222,000 followers.

      Then when his fans (not him) responded aggressively, you took offense with him directly?

      I took offence from the fact that after his fans responded aggressively, and I pointed out that they were doing so, he continued to retweet content by me, much of which was not addressed to him. He was aware that I was receiving abusive messages, but decided to up the ante rather than try to tone things down. He was invited to apologise and did not do so.

      I would also point out that since I wrote this blog post, Dr Jessen attempted to re-open the argument the following day, without any prompting from me, and resulting in me receiving more hostile messages. I responded by telling him that it was time to end this discussion. He sent me another message which was hostile in tone, to which I reiterated that this discussion was over. I have a saved copy of this exchange.

      You then go on to make the argument that you got techy with him (due to his fans) which sounds rather like;

      “‘I was just blowing off steam’ may be an honest explanation, but is not likely to be accepted as a valid justification by professional bodies or employers”

      I’ll freely admit that I got tetchy, but then receiving a non-stop stream of aggressive messages is likely to do that to anyone.

      I don’t think I’ve been blowing off steam. I think that if I’ve been publicly monstered to an audience of 222,000 people then I’m entitled to a right of reply, and this blog post is my reply.

      I’m not a fan of his or the show (it strikes me as popularist psuedo-science), but putting that to one side I can’t really see why you and Ilona have rounded on the guy, simply for making the point that No, he doesn’t worry about the show triggering ED.

      Without wanting to state whether his show triggers ED or not, I personally would be very worried if I was told that my public statements were ED-triggering. I wouldn’t necessarily expect Dr Jessen to agree with such a suggestion, but I think it’s fair to ask him to give his reasons why he thinks it isn’t. And a simple “no” is not a full answer.

      If anyone feels that I have committed professional misconduct by pointing out Dr Jessen’s behaviour, my name is Philip Dore, and I am happy to discuss my statements with the Nursing and Midwifery Council.

  5. Anyway, I feel it’s time now to draw a line under this whole matter, so I’m now closing the comments thread on this post.

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