Developing a Healthy Relationship With Social Media
I’d venture to guess that I spend far more time considering the impacts of social media more than most people. I like to think it’s because I’m a major proponent of living a meaningful & intentional life, and social media presents many complicated roadblocks as well as opportunities to do so. It’s a mysterious, intricate maze that is hard to navigate and is constantly changing.
Social media is the wild west of the Internet: it’s still such a new phenomena in modern society and has infiltrated every aspect of our lives in such a short amount of time, giving us little opportunity to understand how to build a healthy relationship with it.
The negative impact of social media is undeniable. It’s had a tremendous effect on mental health, especially for teenage girls, and has been fuel to the flame for things like depression, anxiety, loneliness, inadequacy, self-absorption, and more. Its psychological impact is strong.
Platforms like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok play on humans’ most primal desires like social validation and are designed to be addictive. And since many of us stepped into the world of social media without understanding the impact it could have on us nor how to have a healthy relationship with it, it has grasped onto many peoples’ lives and totally taken control.
RIP MySpace. The early days of social media.
Though there have been years in my life when social media didn’t exist (unlike Gen Z–ah!), but it has played an important role throughout the majority of my life. I created a MySpace account when I was 13 (we miss you MySpace–RIP to HTML coding and playing music on your profile!). I remember taking posed photos with my cousin that we were excited to post on our new digital profiles, and I quickly gravitated toward features like the bulletin board where I could write little bits or fill out surveys. I also thought very hard about who to feature on my “top 8 friends” – that shit was important.
Then I got pulled into Facebook and Instagram and the excitement of digital engagement and curating my online identity. I didn’t necessarily know it then, but creative self-expression is a strong desire of mine and social media platforms offer perfect outlets for that desire. That was my main attraction to social media at a young age and has continued to strongly influence the way I use various platforms.
My own battle with social media.
But about a year ago I began to see social media as something that was out to get me and was ultimately an illness in society. After watching The Social Dilemma on Netflix, reading “Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now” by Jaron Lanier, and observing my own mind and behavior (like how much I focus on mine and others’ number of followers, how anxious I’d get after sharing something personal, or my impulse to let social media override meaningful, in-person moments), I decided to delete all of my social media profiles. For good.
This was a big deal for me because not only had I used social media for over a decade, but it was a time capsule of photos, creative work, written content, and a cord connecting me to people in my past and present as well as people I met while traveling. Not to mention when you use social media as a creative, it takes a while to build your platform. Leaving it feels similar to burning your house down and then moving to an entirely new community. But I was serious, and I deleted it all.
5 Months Later
Life without social media was nice, and I enjoyed being disconnected. But to my surprise, being away from it actually didn’t change my life as much as I’d anticipated. I thought (and hoped) that clouds would clear and suddenly my life would feel much more vibrant and alive. Instead, things felt pretty similar to the way they were before.
I did notice and appreciate a few differences, like:
I had less of a desire to document my life. I was more present because I didn’t have an impulse to take a photo or a video to document a certain moment to share on my Instagram story.
I enjoyed having an increased sense of privacy. I liked that people didn’t have an opportunity to know what I was up to, and that I wasn’t constantly updated with other peoples’ lives. I felt like people I knew developed more of a genuine curiosity about me when we connected in person, and I felt the same sense of curiosity for them.
In general, I enjoyed spending less time on my phone and having fewer distractions.
It was a relief not having to experience social anxiety that sometimes arises in response to how people interact with what I share.
I liked not being focused on how I was curating my online identity or on my number of followers.
And there were also things I missed, like:
Not having Instagram as an outlet for self expression and creativity.
Not being able to share genuine content I created like blog posts and meditations.
Not being able to share certain updates or photos with friends, nor being able to see theirs.
Not maintaining a connection with people I wouldn’t necessarily text or call but whom I still appreciate.
I felt more lonely in a weird way, though I’d originally thought the opposite would happen. I missed the unique opportunities of connecting with friends and new people online.
After 4 months I began to reconsider creating new Instagram and Facebook accounts to connect, share genuine content that I enjoyed creating, and to rely on it as a business tool. But I was very hesitant (and self-critical) about getting back on, and I spent a month really considering it and sitting with my intention behind using social media:
to use it as a tool and outlet for self-expression and creativity with an effort to stay aligned with my authenticity; to share supportive content and resources for those interested in living consciously; and to use it as a tool to support and generate in-person opportunities for connection.
Through the process of reflection and since getting back on (including getting sucked back into unhealthy aspects and having to evaluate again), I’ve considered different ways to engage with social media in a healthy way and to be in control of it rather than having it be in control of me.
These are the main habits that have stood out to me:
1. Be intentional about who you’re following & what kind of content you’re being exposed to.
Something that always comes to mind on this topic when it comes to social media is some womens’ tendency to follow models or influencers like the Kardashians. These same women I know also tend to struggle with body image, a sense of inadequacy, and low self-esteem.
If your feed is filled with women who have unrealistic or even unreal figures, have restructured their bodies with make-up or plastic surgery, and are hyper-focused on their appearance, it’s not far fetched to say that’s likely having an impact on the way you perceive yourself and what you’re valuing in your life.
It’s not “bad” to engage with social media in this way. But if you struggle with body image for example, it’s important to be mindful about how your choices may be influencing your perception or contributing to your insecurity. Especially when it comes to social media. What impact might it have on your life if you instead chose to follow people who shared unfiltered images or messages of body love? What if your social media channels became sources of joy, encouragement, and positivity?
One of the great things about social media is you have the option to select the kind of content you’re most exposed to. Even if you don’t unfollow someone, you can choose not to see their content in their feed. You can also use algorithms to support you. For example, YouTube is designed to continue to show you more of what you seek. If all you search for is content that uplifts you (or brings you down), that is what the site will show you. Use it to your benefit.
2. Avoid waking & scrolling.
We’ve all done it. I think I did it just a few days ago. I’ll admit that sometimes, especially on the weekend, the idea of opening Instagram after waking up feels exciting to me and helps me wake up. But every time I do I wish I hadn’t because I can feel the way it jolts me into my day and fills my mind with shit I don’t necessarily care about or want to be thinking about first thing.
Staring at your phone and scrolling social media right when you wake up is like opening your door for a bunch of people and all their jabber to fill your house first thing in the morning. It gives the world an opportunity to grab onto you before you’ve had a moment to greet yourself and the day.
Rather, try having a morning routine that feels enlivening and supportive for you. Maybe it’s brewing a cup of coffee and sitting down to journal and think through the day ahead, or maybe it’s going for a walk or exercising. Being intentional about the start of your day helps you to get centered and it impacts the overall tone of your day.
Then, you can hop on the social medias from a more grounded and probably happier state of mind
3. Designate times when you’re not on social media.
I believe the most important times to be off social media are after waking up in the morning and before going to bed. Not only does science share that this can improve your sleep quality, it’s also a way to show social media (and yourself) who’s boss. How you start and end your day has an impact on your day-to-day experiences and therefore your life in the long run.
It’s also important to consider when it’s not super supportive to be on social media, like while trying to get a work project done. If you’re like me you have a tendency to grab your phone and click on your apps periodically throughout the day. If I hadn’t intentionally put my phone away to write this blog article, I probably would’ve picked up my phone at least 5 times by now. This tendency is extremely interruptive to my productivity and makes my mind feel like broken glass.
Social media can be less disruptive and even more enjoyable when there are set times that you log on. Nothing provides a whole lot of benefit when you do it off-and-on for very short periods of time throughout the day. Help yourself focus and experience more clarity, joy, and productivity by focusing on one task at a time and being fully immersed in whatever you’re doing–even if that means scrolling. Be wherever you’re at, fully.
And of course, you can always use time tracking apps to help you draw boundaries and monitor your time off and on social media apps.
4. Consider your purpose for being on social media.
We all use social media in different ways. Some of us like to share or see photos of our families and day-to-day happenings, some like to use it as a platform for creative self-expression, some people use it for business endeavors, and some people just want to find funny memes and get away from daily stressors for a bit.
There’s no one right way to use social media. Rather, what’s important is that you’re aware of what your reason is. What do you get from different apps? How do they support you? Do you like to share more than you consume content, or the other way around?
Like anything, the way we interact and use social media provides opportunities to learn more about ourselves, our tendencies, and our needs. And with more awareness comes greater opportunity to make intentional choices for the betterment of our lives and our health.
5. Be conscious & honest with yourself about social media’s impact on you.
Awareness of how you use and engage with social media is important, and it’s also worth considering the impact it has on you.
You might be really aware that you love eating McDonald’s Big Macs, but if you’re oblivious to the impact it has on your life then you’re asleep and disengaged when it comes to the consequences that you might not necessarily want to experience. The same truth applies to social media usage.
We all have choices, and those choices influence how we experience life to a significant degree, but before making intentional choices we have to be aware of the current ones we’re making and the impact they’re having.
If you pay attention to yourself and you notice for example that whenever you get done scrolling Instagram you feel like shit, that’s worth paying attention to and evaluating. It doesn’t mean that Instagram is awful and you need to delete it right away. (That tends to be my perspective as someone who often thinks in black-and-white.) Rather, it just means that there’s something about the app that isn’t serving you. What is it? Are you comparing yourself to others? What if Instagram was a source of inspiration instead–what would that look like, and how could you change the way you use the app to create that outcome?
These are important questions to ask, and when you inquire into your own behavior and what might be influencing it then you make it possible to make thoughtful changes.
6. Be mindful when using social media apps.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever logged onto social media for one particular thing and ended up lifting your head 30 minutes to 30 hours later to find you’ve completely gone down the rabbit hole? I know I’m definitely not the only one.
It’s too easy to log on, scroll, and turn on auto-pilot while the time zooms by. It’s not necessarily your fault; the techies at Silicon Valley have engineered social media apps to capture you in this way because they want you to stay there. That’s how they make billions of dollars. OK, yeah, that’s shitty, and I don’t love it either. This is usually when I jump to the conclusion that I just need to delete ‘em and retreat forever. But it doesn’t have to be so black-and-white.
As always, awareness goes a long way. It’s the knowledge of how things work, how it impacts us, and what choices we’re making that shapes our lives. An easy way to be more mindful when using social media is to check in with yourself before clicking an app. Why are you logging on? How can you stay focused on that task? (I have to practice this in a lot of areas of my life–like shopping at Target and keeping myself focused on the goal so I don’t get sidetracked by all the candles and pillows and decorations I don’t need that are beckoning to me).
You can also be more mindful while using apps just by observing your behavior while on them. It’s fine if you don’t necessarily have a motive for logging on to social media other than to scroll and see what’s happening, but when you’re aware and not checked out you can actually notice when you’ve spent a while looking at photos of your friend’s aunt’s boyfriend’s dog’s Instagram page. And with that awareness you can ask if that’s really how you want to spend your time, and then make choices accordingly.
7. Draw boundaries between your phone and in-person moments.
Ah, the classic moment when you’re having a meaningful conversation with someone in person and they pull out their phone. It’s the worst. Nothing can replace personal, real life interactions, whether that be with your environment or with another person. You just can’t experience anything better and more genuine than real life connection.
That’s why it can feel depleting when you or someone else interrupts a meaningful moment with a cell phone. It’s because cell phones suck when it comes to reality. It’s like replacing an apple with Apple Jacks, or a good cup of coffee with decaf.