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5 Ways To Keep Your Social Feeds From Destroying Your Mental Health

Logging off isn't always possible, but boundaries can help

By Michell C. Clark

You’re jolted out of your sleep by your phone’s alarm clock. You’ve grown to hate that sound. You quickly grab your phone off of your nightstand to restore the silence of the morning, if only for a few more seconds. And before you know it, you’ve checked your texts, e-mail, and notifications to see if you missed anything time-sensitive or important — all before your feet touch the ground for the first time that day. You still don’t want to get out of bed yet, so you drift over to the Instagram Explore tab. Fifteen minutes later, you finally stop watching cute puppy videos with just enough time to rush through your morning routine, grab some breakfast, and clock in.

You might not think of your consistent social media usage as an issue — and you’re not alone. According to Statista, almost three billion people use some sort of social media platform on a daily basis, and that number will only rise as our world becomes increasingly digital. At this point, it’s become an integral form of communication.

But social media can also be addicting, in ways that app developers may not have anticipated when they first created their platforms. According to Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based licensed psychologist and curator of Therapy For Black Girls, an online space and weekly podcast dedicated to all things mental health, social media has become “a mindless part of our schedule. When you’re not logged in, it feels like something is missing in your life.”

Most of us, however, are usually on social media with some sort of purpose. In fact, social media platforms provide tangible, irreplicable benefits to many people, in ways that have changed our world forever. A breaking news story can spread almost instantaneously. Small businesses and entrepreneurs can build niche audiences organically. Marginalized voices can reach like-minded communities without the help of gatekeepers or established media platforms.

Unfortunately, studies show that platforms such as Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook negatively impact mental health as usage increases. A 2018 study executed at the University of Pennsylvania and published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology reported that people who use Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram for a combined total of more than 30 minutes per day experience significantly more anxiety, depression, loneliness, and FOMO than their logged-off peers. And most of us are far exceeding that 30-minute time limit: In January, Global Web Index reported that average social media usage for internet users has risen steadily from 90 minutes per day in 2012 to 181 minutes per day in 2018.

Furthermore, choosing to decrease social media usage isn’t a certain path to decreased anxiety. The issue is complex, and research conducted by nonprofit organization Anxiety UK indicates that 45 percent of people who are unable to access social networks or email instead feel more worried or uncomfortable as a result — again, the dreaded FOMO. According to Terri Torevell, Anxiety UK’s Communications Officer, intentional planning and forethought are critical components to reducing social media-induced anxiety.

Torevell explains that “if you are predisposed to anxiety it seems that the pressures from technology act as a tipping point, making people feel more insecure and more overwhelmed. These findings suggest that some may need to re-establish control over the technology they use, rather than being controlled by it.”

And therein lies the catch: In a society that is increasingly dependent on social media, permanently logging off is not a guaranteed solution to our anxiety,nor is it realistic one, due to the risk we take by cutting ourselves off from large swaths of crucial information. But it is certainly possible to be more thoughtful about managing the effects that the digital world has on your mental health. Dr. Joy asserts that it is our responsibility to be sure that we don’t “introduce any unnecessary negative energy into our space.”

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  • Remind yourself that social media is skewed to normalize unrealistic expectations.

    Every social media platform is built with the intent of capturing and maintaining our attention. Our timelines display the picture perfect model, the wealthy entrepreneur, and the jacked athlete because algorithms determine that people are drawn to them based on how other people engage with their content. The more popular or famous a person is, the more likely their photo will appear in your feed. But these photos often offer unrealistic depictions of everyday life, which can skew our interpretation of what is considered beautiful, or normal, or successful. And when our own posts receive less engagement than these depictions, it’s easy to not only feel like we’ve failed in comparison, but to also internalize this failure as a reflection of our self-worth.

    “There’s a lot of deliberation around what we choose to post,” Dr. Joy explains. “When I do presentations at colleges I will ask people how many selfies they take before choosing one to post. It’s never less than ten. We have to keep in mind that all of that is very highly curated. We’re looking at it and thinking ‘oh, she’s thinner than I am,’ or ‘look how cute they are as a couple.’”

    Remember that behind any given perfect picture and mythical success story are hair and makeup teams, wind machines, personal trainers, and more — and that most people don’t disclose the hard work involved to bring you that one glittering image. What’s more,  countless failures are part of every incredible success story — and it’s important not to let comparisons take away from how you view yourself.

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  • Spread the positivity, love, and encouragement that you hope to receive.

    It’s impossible to control every facet of your social media feed, but examining the role that you play in engineering that experience can be empowering. The energy that you give off and the conversations that you facilitate on social media will play a role in determining what kind of engagement you attract.

    Do you think about how the content that you create might affect your followers? Do you consider the way that your engagement with other people can shift their thinking? Asking yourself these types of questions when necessary will allow you to ensure that you’re contributing the energy that you’re hoping to receive.

    “It’s your social media so you can post whatever you want. If you’re just posting but not doing anything about whatever negative space you’re in, it’s not serving your interests anyway,” Dr. Joy points out. “What are you doing so that you’re not always in that space? Where do you go then, besides always spewing negativity on Twitter?”

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  • Take breaks whenever necessary.

    According to Dr. Joy, “sometimes you realize that by spending so much time on social media you’re cutting into time you can spend doing other things.” Shaking a social media dependency is often easier said than done, especially if social media is somehow tied to your job. It can be difficult to delineate the differences between social media usage for the sake of achieving specific business goals or staying “in the know” about current events, and knowing how much is too much for you.

    If you’re on social media with specific goals in mind, ensure that you give yourself enough time to periodically disconnect as a means of preventing burnout and preserving your mental peace. Dr. Joy suggests a bit of forethought and planning by way of asking yourself actionable questions: “Make a list of the things you want to do. How connected are you to your friends in real life? When’s the last time you saw a movie? When’s the last time you saw your parents, assuming that you want to?”

    “We don’t always do these things because we feel connected through social media,” she adds. “We’re not actually spending time with people in real life, and you forget that sometimes. I encourage people to try to make some real-life connections with people when they want to take a social media break.”

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  • Be honest with yourself about what boundaries are best for you.

    Habits that distract from one person’s mission can provide fuel to somebody striving to reach a different goal. It’s crucial to take stock of how environments and influences affect both your person and the goals you’ve set for yourself. Part of that work can include being aware of how the time that you spend scrolling your timelines informs, influences, and affects you.

    Dr. Joy relates boundary setting on social media to boundary setting in real life. Many people, she says “operate the same way on social media that we do off of it, which is with a lack boundaries. It comes down to spending some time with yourself to figure out what things are and are not OK in your space.”

    We all have different needs, tendencies, and goalso be accounted for when we set and uphold our individual boundaries. Someone who is building a platform based on timely cultural commentary —  in the form of a career, simply because they’re interested in such work on a personal level, or both — might feel the need to engage on social media more consistently than someone who is interested in building a platform based on sharing their personal story with the world.

    As you’re figuring out what your voice is, and what work you’d like to do both online and off, Dr. Joy prompts you to ask yourself:

    “What kind of things do I want to put in the world? What kind of ways are acceptable for people to talk to me online? When you spend some time thinking about what your boundaries are in general, then you can translate that to your social media space.”

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  • Try to refrain from using social media as a band-aid for deeper issues.

    There are a number of productive, positive, and entertaining ways to engage with other people online. You can rave about the new brunch spot you discovered down the street, live-tweet your reaction to the latest award show, watch an infinite amount of cute puppy videos, or amplify activists and other change-makers by retweeting their content onto your feed. The options are limitless.

    Because you alone determine how you engage on these platforms, it’s easy for IRL habits to sneak into your digital voice. Social media often mirrors real life, and Dr. Joy posits that “some people don’t realize that the way they use social media is actually a call for help.” She adds ,”If you are constantly venting and complaining and posting negative things, that feels like an indicator that there is something going on that you need to talk with somebody about. If you’re just thinking that everyone uses social media in that way and not realizing that there is more work to be done, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

    She advises seeking outside help if you feel like you can’t move past a problem, or even if you are not quite sure what that problem is. If you’re looking to find a therapist near you, Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s “Find A Therapist” directory is a good place to start; experts caution that finding the right therapist for you is not always a one-and-done process, and it might take a few sessions with a few different professionals to find the right fit for you. If finance is a concern, low-cost and no-cost options may be available to you in your area.

If you or someone you know is struggling with their emotional health, head to halfofus.com for ways to get help.