Every month, it seems, another study is added to the already massive pile of research that confirms what we already know: social media can be toxic to our collective mental health. In the latter half of 2021, for instance, a Yale University study confirmed that, yep, social media platforms amplify the stuff that makes us outraged because outrage equals engagement. Then, in September, the Wall Street Journal published a review of internal Facebook documents that proved, among other things, that the social media giant knew exactly how harmful Instagram is to the mental health and body image of its teen and tween users. (While there’s little to no research into it, there is reason to suspect that TikTok, which data says gains eight new users every second, may have a similar problem). In October, the University of Technology Sydney published a systematic review of social media that identified 47 harmful effects, including jealousy, loneliness, anxiety, and reduced self-esteem.
This shouldn’t be surprising. For years, there have been warnings about the addictive and deleterious effects of social media (Let’s not forget the 2018 study by Harvard researchers that showed how posting about yourself on platforms triggers the same part of the brain that lights up during addiction.) These additional findings are simply kindling for the already roaring fire. Would scrubbing your Twitter, TikTok, Instagram, LinkedIn, and other accounts be in your best interest? Most likely. The effects social media have on you are largely counterproductive to being a present parent and, well, person. But let’s be honest: The chances of that happening are slim to none. Social media is simply too ingrained. It’s where we connect with friends and colleagues, read the news, learn new skills, and find a wider view of the world.
So, then, we must learn to develop habits that allow for a healthier, less dependent relationship with social media platforms.
“This is the social media paradox: the paradox reflects the fact that a platform designed to enhance social connections and foster better communications — two pillars of mental health — decreases both,” says Dr. Carl Marci, founder and CEO of Innerscope Research, chief neuroscientist for Nielsen, and the author of the forthcoming Rewired: Protecting Your Brain in a Digital Age. “It disrupts strong social bonds that we need to nurture in the real world that are critical to our mental health and happiness, and it decreases quality communications by amplifying and reinforcing disinformation and cyber-bullying in the virtual world online.”
Dr. Marci notes that a major factor in the development of social media dependency stems from weakened prefrontal cortex. The most integrated part of the human brain, it’s involved in the regulation of attention, emotion, and memory.
“The prefrontal cortex helps us stop sometimes dangerous impulses and ultimately mitigate the impact of unhealthy behaviors that can lead to unhealthy habits – thus, preventing us from sliding into addiction,” says Dr. Marci. “If the prefrontal cortex becomes compromised, even slightly, through stress, neglect, fatigue, media multitasking, information overload, or succumbing to ubiquitous superstimuli or disinformation online, we put ourselves at great risk.”
Understanding that you’re at risk for an unhealthy relationship with social media, then, is vital. According to Jennifer Hettema, senior clinical director and licensed clinical psychologist at LifeStance Health, a big sign is if you find that your self-worth hinges on the engagement you receive from social media. Additionally, if you find yourself rejecting other activities, like exercising and social interaction in favor of online activity, that’s an indication as well.
Robert Stern, the founder, and CEO of the marketing company The Social Leader adds that you should ask yourself a simple question: If my phone was locked away for a few hours, does that cause panic or anxiety? “Being unable to live your life offline is the first sign of unhealthy use,” he says.
Other warning signs of problematic social media use include low self-esteem, sleep issues, obsessive refreshing of one or more social media apps, and, in some cases, a decrease in sex drive. This last sign can stem from feelings of depression and isolation as a result of prolonged social media indulgence.
To break the cycle of unhealthy social media use, experts recommend a few helpful tips.
1. Determine Why You’re Using It
There are definite benefits to using social media. Connecting with friends, growing your business, seeking qualified advice. However, are those your primary motivators for signing up for Twitter or TikTok? You need to know what you’re hoping to get out of your time online before you can use it productively. “Before you open a social media app, take the time to ask yourself what your true intention — your why beneath the why — for engaging with the app is,” says Stern. “To be popular? To be connected? To network? To compare? To judge? To gossip? The first step to more mindful use is knowing why you are opening the app in the first place.” Interrogate your answer.
2. Don’t Sign In When You’re Feeling Down
Life can be hard for everyone and, when things don’t go our way, we seek out opportunities for a quick mood booster. Nothing quite fits the bill like the dopamine rush of a like on social media. That should be avoided. “Only use social media when in a certain mental space,” says Michele Goldman, psychologist and a media advisor for the Hope for Depression Research Foundation. At the very least, Goldman advises checking in with yourself during, and after social media use to monitor your mood and the impact social media has on it. What made you laugh? What made you feel self-conscious? What made you feel anxious? Answer them honestly.
3. Set Clear Goals
One of the biggest triggers for bringing people back to social media is the fabled “Fear of Missing Out,” more commonly known as FOMO. Dr. Marci suggests adopting a mindset of JOMO, or the “Joy of Missing Out.” To do that, Dr. Marci says to set a clear, properly framed goal or reason why you don’t want to be on social media. Focus on a future and something positive. Think: I want to be more present with my kids and to be more productive at work, not I want to check my smartphone less.
4. Think Twice Before You Share
Proper social media habits aren’t just about what you’re viewing online, but also what you’re sharing (This goes doubly so for sharing photos of your kids) There’s an old adage about not sharing anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want to read in the paper. Dr. Marci says there’s another approach to take. His favorite bit of advice for using social media more mindfully and constructively comes from a public school in Minnesota. They post signs with the acronym “T.H.I.N.K.” that beckons students to ask: Is what you’re posting True? Is it Helpful to someone or some group? Does the post Inspire? Is it Necessary? And finally, is it Kind?
5. Give Yourself a Time Limit
Social media time seemingly works differently than time spent in the real world. We can start scrolling through Twitter, go down a rabbit hole, and the next thing we know, two hours have passed. That’s wasted and unproductive time. It’s crucial to be conscious of the time you’re spending. So, set a time limit. Use your phone’s screen time limiter to set a daily length of time, or simply set a 10-minute timer. Once the time expires, lock the app and move on.
6. Scale Back Slowly
You may look at your social habits and think they’re completely fine. But you also may not and conclude that it’s time to reduce your use. There is no one tried and true method for weaning yourself off social media. But Goldman offers a path: Turn off notifications and allow yourself time to adjust. Next, implement daily cut-off times for responding, posting, and searching on social media. (Find your current average hours spent on social media and begin to set weekly goals of carving off 30 minutes to an hour; then, work your way down to a timeframe that’s right for you). Finally, move away from posting in the moment and limit your comments on other people’s posts.
7. Find Real-World Replacements
Reducing social media can leave a void in our life, particularly if we’ve been using it excessively. It can be hard to fill that void right away, and not doing so could lead to a backslide in unhealthy online habits. An important step: find healthier outlets that give you the same feeling. “If you use social media to primarily connect with your friends, try giving your friends a phone call to catch up,” says Hettema. “The one-to-one conversation can be very meaningful if it’s something that’s outside of what you’d usually do.” Find similar equivalents for the other areas, too. Download news apps to your phone. Subscribe to an instructional cooking platform if you found yourself scrolling through food video after food video. Rejoin reality as much as you can.
8. Be As Intentional As Possible
As Nir Eyal, author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, previously told Fatherly, we often turn to technology when we don’t want to confront our uncomfortable feelings of boredom or anxiety. The opposite of distraction, he pointed out, is traction. That is, any action that pulls you towards what you want.
The key to winning back yourself from social media lies in being as intentional as possible.“Technology isn’t evil,” he noted. “It just needs to be planned for. So, don’t check tech when you have nothing better to do. Use it on your schedule. I have time in my schedule, in my day, for social media. It’s something I value. I like to connect with friends and stay up to date with my industry and reach readers of my book. But it’s planned for in my day.” Follow suit and, chances are, you’ll feel much more in control.
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