Social media has a number of benefits. It helps us stay in touch with friends and family, connect with people with similar interests, and access important, timely information from the palm of our hands. But with all the good it does, social media also has its drawbacks - particularly when it comes to our health.
A growing body of research has found a strong association between social media use and poor mental health outcomes. It’s been linked to depression, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as lower levels of life satisfaction and happiness. Plus, it can be addicting, keeping us scrolling mindlessly for hours.
So how do we enjoy social media, without sacrificing our emotional well-being? The good news is you don’t need to ditch your phone to do so. Setting a few boundaries to limit your social media usage can go a long way in protecting your mental health and overall well-being. Here’s what you need to know about establishing healthy social media habits:
How does social media affect mental health?
As mentioned earlier, social media can be a great connective tool. WIth the ability to reach anyone throughout the world in the matter of seconds, these platforms have created a type of global community. However, it doesn’t always support a sense of belonging.
In a world where people’s lives are on full display online, there are endless opportunities for comparison. We’re constantly observing others’ lives from afar, being bombarded with updates on their achievements and successes. As people tend to only showcase the positive moments online, leaving out the negative, we end up comparing our true reality to these false, manicured ones. The constant exposure to others’ highlight reels can be damaging, leading to feelings of inadequacy, envy, and exclusion. Studies have shown that this social comparison via social media sites is associated with higher levels of depression and loneliness. It can also contribute to poor body image and low-self esteem.
Beyond self-comparison, social media can also be detrimental to our mental health by way of “doom scrolling” or excessive consumption of bad news. Whether you’re looking to stay up to date on the latest information or just simply stumble upon a negative story, it’s easy to go down a rabbit hole of troubling or worrisome social media and news content. Constant exposure to these stressful stories sends the body into high alert or flight-or-fight mode, triggering a stress response. Over time, this can take a toll on your emotional well-being, leading to feelings of burnout, hopelessness, anger, or fear. It’s also been linked to higher levels of anxiety, depression, and stress.
Why is it so hard to set boundaries?
It’s not just you — social media is hard to quit. It’s difficult to even put your phone down at times.
“Social media has been designed by computer scientists, psychologists, and UX/UI designers to be as addictive as possible,” says Kaye, who cites several books on the very subject, including Irresistible and The Chaos Machine which go in-depth as to how social media sites “are designed to keep us hooked.”
According to Kaye, these platforms play off the human need for connection and approval.
“Human beings have an evolutionary desire to not feel ‘out of the loop,’ and this trait probably really helped our ancestors survive — and be aware of — hazards and threats,” says Kaye. “If you've ever felt a bit panicked by not understanding an inside joke a few of your friends had together, you probably know exactly what I mean! That same trait that really helped your ancestors be aware of threats can now make it super hard to unplug or set social media boundaries.”
How to set social media boundaries
Though it can take some work, making an effort to adopt healthy social media habits can significantly improve your mental health. A 2018 study found that reducing social media use to 30 minutes a day leads to lower levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, and trouble sleeping. Likewise, individuals who have taken breaks from social media have reported improvements in mood, anxiety, depression, and overall well-being.
Plus, limiting your social media use will free up time for other activities. “Time off social media is time we spend living our own lives, instead of comparing ours to those others. Setting social media boundaries may help you do something you enjoy even more, like talking to friends, playing catch with your dog, or adding healthy habits to your life!”
Here are a few ways to get started:
1. Take inventory
“The first step to setting new boundaries is to be fully aware of your old ones,” says Kaye.“See what you like and don't like about your relationship with social media.”
In order to set new goals, it’s helpful to consider and observe your current habits. Leave judgment out of the equation and simply take stock. Be mindful of how often you actually open your apps and how long you use them. Tools can be incredibly helpful here. “Use apps like Screen Time or RescueTime to gain more awareness of your relationship with social media,” Kaye suggests.
Consider why you’re checking your feed and how you feel afterwards. Are you using social media to make a connection? Or are you simply logging in out of habit or boredom? It’s easy to get caught up scrolling mindlessly through social media, so remember to check your intentions.
2. Set limits
Now that you understand your social media use, it’s time to give yourself some goals and limits. Try designating a specific time to scroll and give yourself a time limit. You can even use a timer or another app to regulate yourself. Many social media platforms also allow you to set these parameters within their apps themselves.
“If you struggle setting limits, it's okay to use technology to assist your willpower!” says Kaye. “I like StayFocusd for browsing on the web and Screen Time limits for browsing on phones. Sometimes I've heard clients say they feel this is the ‘easy way out,’ but there's nothing wrong with using any tools at your disposal that help you, especially in the short term.”
You might also consider changing your notification settings to limit interruptions and avoid temptation outside of your designated social media time.
3. Spring clean your accounts
Have you ever “cleaned up” your social media accounts? Go through each one, delete old messages, and clean out your saved folder. “Unfollow particularly distracting subreddits or hashtags,” says Kaye. Consider how you feel after consuming content from certain accounts. Unfollow any accounts that trigger a negative emotional response or aren’t serving you emotionally, and mute anyone you don’t want to see.
4. Start fresh
If cleaning up doesn’t feel like a big enough change, or it’s simply overwhelming, consider a blank canvas. “Consider making a new, ‘clean’ account for browsing,” suggests Kaye. For instance, if your feed has become inundated with negative news and politics, consider a new account where you follow comedy or positive, good news accounts. Start over, and curate the experience you want with more intention and mindfulness.
5. Create a 1:1 plan
“For people who find themselves doom scrolling on social media, it can be helpful to require a 1:1 ratio with more positive activities,” suggests Kaye. “For example, for every five minutes you spend on Facebook, spend five minutes reading uplifting news on a website like Good News Network. You might find that injecting some positivity can help you break the cycle, and the one-to-one nature of this exercise may make the idea of spending hours on social media less enticing.”
It doesn’t have to be an online activity, either. “You can also replace uplifting news with anything you think would be good for you, like yoga, stretching, or talking to friends on the phone!”
You could also “earn” social media time. If you spend 30 minutes exercising, you can “earn” 30 minutes of scrolling. Add in a habit you’re trying to build (exercise is merely one example!) and you could end up creating a mental-health-boosting habit in the process of breaking (or disrupting) your social media habits.
6. Disrupt your patterns
Since social media use can often be mindless, it can help to make changes that force you to pause and adjust your routine. Start by moving your apps that you open mindlessly. Moving the app to a new folder or area of your home screen might help you break patterns of impulse.
Next, try logging out of your social media apps each time you use them, so you’re forced to take extra steps each time you open the app. Just creating a little extra work for yourself can be enough to deter you from your normal routine.
Level up by deleting one app off your phone for a day — or a week, if you can! This will make your social media accounts less accessible so you need to login in through your web browser or on a different device in order to use them.
7. Take a break
If you’re up to the challenge, consider doing a “digital detox” and stay logged out (or delete your apps) for a longer stretch of time. This can be a great way to reset and give your mind and body a break. It will also give you some much needed insight into your current social media habits and help you reassess your goals. Remember, you can always log back in.
8. Seek help
If you’re concerned about your social media usage or feel like it’s interfering with your daily life, it could be a good idea to seek additional support. Start by reaching out to your primary care provider. They can work with you to develop a care plan that supports your goals and healthy social media use, whether that’s lifestyle changes or a referral to a behavioral health specialist.
Have more questions about social media and your health? Our primary care team is here to help! At One Medical, we aim to provide exceptional care designed around you and your unique health needs. Sign up today to book an appointment — in person or over video — through our app.
The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.
Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.