How to Develop a Healthy Relationship with Social Media

Social media, though barely more than a decade old, has evolved to play a huge role in our lives personally, culturally and politically. It’s hard to overstate the level of impact (both positive and negative) that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat have had on human interaction in the past ten years.

According to Common Sense Media’s most recent study, Social Media, Social Life: Teens Reveal Their Experiences, the number of teens on social media has risen from 34% in 2012 to 70% in 2018! Interestingly (and perhaps not surprisingly), they found that “teens with low social-emotional well-being experience more of the negative effects of social media,” while those with high social-emotional well-being were more likely to say that social media had a positive effect on how they feel. In addition, a report released last year by the Royal Society for Public Health in the UK,  #StatusofMind, found that across the board Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter all demonstrated negative effects overall on young people's mental health.

So what should we take away from these studies? It seems that social media, used properly and in moderation does actually add some joy to our lives. Most of us enjoy the connection it can afford to friends and family plus a cute cat video here and there. The question is how can we manage the addictive pull and questionable content so as to enjoy and maintain a healthy relationship to it?

To become a more mindful user of social media, the very first thing to do is to become aware of (and acknowledge) the potential pitfalls that come with it so that we can take steps to avoid them:

  • #doingitforthegram - These days many people find themselves curating and editing their lives to make the perfect instagram post. External sources of esteem give us a little Dopamine rush and are a nice mood booster, but when they become the main motivator in our behavior life begins to feel empty, meaningless and most importantly inauthentic. In addition, people often do thoughtless and dangerous stunts just to get a great pic - not thinking of the potential consequences to themselves or others.

  • Comparing Insides to Outsides: Spending our days aspiring to something we’re not instead of accepting and developing who we really are only leads to insecurity. We feel (even if rationally we know it’s not so) that what we see in someone else’s post is the “truth” or the whole picture. Curating and digitally manipulating images has become so common that it’s often impossible to distinguish when an image is authentic. Lines are smoothed, hips are curved, breasts are enlarged, lips are puffed. What is the impact of all of this on young minds? Spending time looking at “perfect” images of people (usually women) sets up unrealistic expectations for what real life should look like and can leave us feeling “less-than” and unfulfilled.

  • Slaves to the “ding”: Allowing social media and other app notifications to dictate how we spend our time, what we look at, and what we consume can make our life start to feel like a predictable and uninspiring hamster wheel. We’ve gotten so used to responding to notifications that most of us can’t even remember what it felt like to make our own decisions about how our time was spent and who was able to reach us. And let’s not even get into the amount of time wasted going down the rabbit hole (that began with a useless notification) that could be spent doing something valuable and enriching.

  • Ista-gratification: Social media - and all new media to be honest - trains us to expect instant gratification and rewards all the time. Sitting and waiting (for a text, a call, an email, a download, a delivery) feels like torture in our always connected world. It’s become much more difficult to pace ourselves, be patient or just sit and be present.

Ok, so now we’ve gone over many of the ways in which social media can have a negative effect on our lives. But there are ways to develop a healthy and fun relationship with it, so here are some tips to do just that:

  1. Install an app like Moment. Track your social media use for a week so that you know how and where you spend your time. Once you know this you can start to curate and make more mindful choices about how you spend your time.

  2. Go into your app settings and turn off your social media notifications. That way, instead of being constantly interrupted by the temptation of seeing what friends are posting, YOU decide when to check in and get some of your control back.

  3. Organize and toss: Lose any social media apps from your phone that you don’t absolutely need. Is it an app you can check in with now and then on the computer instead of carrying it with you? Get rid of it. Now go into your phone and create folders for different app categories. Make one for social media, one for utilities, one for shopping, one for music etc. Put only the practical tools on your phone’s home screen (eg. phone, messages, camera, music) and move your other folders to the next screens. I learned this tip from Tristan Harris of Time Well Spent. It does two great things - makes your phone much cleaner and neater to look; and since it’s not sitting there staring you in the face all the time, it builds in an extra beat for you to consider whether you really need to go on to that social media app.

  4. Go into your social media apps and prune: Who are you following? Do you agree with their values and how they’re living their lives? Are you spending your time scrolling through pics of celebrities wishing you looked like them or craving all their material possessions? Take time to consider if some of the people you follow aspirationally make you feel worse about your own life - if so - remove. Remove any account that leaves you feeling jealous or less than, add in inspiring accounts that make you feel happy, fulfilled, fascinated or motivated.

  5. Create a social media daily limit. All the new operating systems offer ways to limit your own screen use, so go ahead and use them. Whether it’s for yourself or your child, keep social media daily intakes to less than an hour a day if possible.

One last note: If you have a tween begging for a social media account take a few things into consideration before saying ‘yes’:

  • The terms of use on social media platforms restrict users to age 13 and above so if your child is under 13 you’ll have to lie to create an account for them - not the best example to set.

  • Social media can be hard for even the most confident users to navigate given the constant comparing, the addictive pull of “likes” and the potential for bullying and harassment. A young tween or teen may not have the social, emotional and psychological tools and experience to manage this world without incurring a tremendous amounts of anxiety and stress.

  • Consider putting off social media for as long as you can and once you do allow it, go slow. One platform at a time, follow without commenting and check in consistently with judgement free conversation.

Social media in some form or another is here to stay and there are definitely ways to enjoy it in a healthy and measured way without allowing it to infringe upon your life. Follow these steps to find more balance in your daily social media diet and if you have any other ideas or tips please share!