A Healthier Relationship With Social Media? Yes, Please!

Stop the scrolling and post your own content instead. The simple move will have a major impact on your mental health.

by Sarah Ellis Health Writer

How long has it been since you checked social media? A day, an hour, five minutes? The Pew Research Center estimates that seven in 10 Americans are active on social media, and the majority of us spend time on these platforms—connecting, consuming, or a little of both—at least once per day.

COVID quarantine has only increased our dependence on social media platforms. A Facebook community insight survey from October 2020 found that 77% of respondents say the most important group they are part of now operates virtually. But what is all that time online doing to our mental health?

According to experts, social media addiction is real and can have some concerning consequences for your emotional health and well-being. But at the same time, social media can be an agent for positive social connection. New research in the Journal of Happiness Studies provides insight on how to have a healthier relationship to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The secret sauce? It’s all in how you use these platforms.

Relationship Status: It’s Complicated

The relationship between social media use and mental health is thorny, to say the least. “Any blanket statement saying, ‘It’s all good’ or ‘It’s all bad’ is not going to be true,” says Jelena Kecmanovic, Ph.D., founding director of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and clinical psychologist in Arlington, VA. “The not-very-satisfactory answer is, ‘It depends.’” Some research does show social media to be linked to anxiety, depression, and lower emotional satisfaction, but it’s not clear which of these factors is the cause. Does social media make people more anxious, or do anxious people simply spend more time on social media?

“Most studies have shown that people feel worse [after using social media], yet it doesn’t stop people from doing it,” Kecmanovic says. “So, they’re getting something out of it as well.” During this time when in-person connections are limited, social media can feel like a much-needed peek into the outside world. You can’t see your friends IRL (thank you, COVID), so why not follow their lives online?

Social media also helps distract from the stresses of life. “We might be bored or anxious about work or frustrated about something, and we want to distract by doing something that is mindless,” she says. “So, we open up Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook.” In a year like 2020, it’s easy to see why you’d want a little break from reality.

The Comparison Trap

Here’s the problem: You can’t control what comes up in your online feed. “You cannot predict or control what information is going to be there,” Kecmanovic says. When you queue up a movie after a long day, you can pretty much guess what you’re about to be watching–a comedy, a drama, or an escapist sci-fi thriller. With social media, it’s all a gamble, and you may stumble on some content you weren’t expecting.

“We don’t end up feeling lighter or less encumbered,” Kecmanovic says, “because [we] see other people posting things [about] doing gloriously, doing well, celebrating their achievements, and presenting this very curated version of their life.” When you’re feeling insecure, the last thing you need to see is other people “thriving” (even though you don’t really know what’s going on in their lives). “We compare ourselves with what we see on social media, and then of course we’re going to fall short, because we have access to our whole life,” she explains. You know your own shortcomings and failures, but you can only see what other people choose to publicly share. You get the good without any of the bad.

Kecmanovic calls this phenomenon upward social comparison. “You’re comparing yourself to people who seem to be higher than you in some way,” she explains. That, combined with the polarized political atmosphere on social media, can end up dragging you down further into anxiety and stress.

How to Flip the Script

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the Journal of Happiness Studies report, researchers discovered that the more frequently social media users compared themselves to others, the worse they reported feeling after using those platforms. “The social comparison aspect looks like a major reason that spending time on social network sites produces negative feelings,” says Derrick Wirtz, Ph.D., associate professor of teaching in the department of psychology at the University of British Columbia Okanagan campus in Canada and principal author on the study.

The antidote to this is to strive for active, rather than passive, social media use. “Using social media passively implies scrolling or viewing pictures and updates without doing anything to strengthen social bonds,” Wirtz says. This inevitably leads to comparison and is “a recipe for feeling worse.” Instead, use your social media platforms intentionally to connect with others–post your own content, comment on friends’ posts, and message people back and forth. This gives you some sense of personal agency. “Active use would be much better,” Wirtz suggests, “particularly if it involves direct communication or planning for getting together with friends or family in-person” – though COVID doesn’t always allow for in-person meetings. Still, use these sites for active connection as much as you can.

Make an Action Plan

Before you open Instagram, take a beat to think about why. Do you have a photo you want to share, a quote you want to tweet, or a person you want to Facebook message? Or are you just surfing the internet for a dose of dopamine… which you may or may not end up getting?

“We know that expressing yourself and your emotions, whether positive or negative, is a healthy thing,” Kecmanovic says. Use your social media to reflect you and the things you love, rather than doomscrolling through other people’s feeds for a distraction.

Here are some tips for setting crucial boundaries:

1. Turn off notifications.

Kecmanovic suggests turning off notifications so they won’t constantly bombard you throughout the day. “There’s this reptilian part of our brain that sees a notification and says, ‘Oh, I have to check it,’” she explains. “We get forcefully distracted from being present with people around us, from work, from cooking, from anything [we’re] trying to mindfully do in the moment.”

Instead, plan to check social media only at certain times of the day. “Even if you spend a certain amount of time on social media every two hours, that’s better than looking at your phone every time you get a notification,” she says. “What’s preferable is that you decide in a deliberate fashion.” Get yourself on a schedule and see how that goes.

2. Have a purpose every time you log on.

Don’t just pull up Twitter every time you have a free moment. Think before you click. “Don’t be at the mercy of it,” Kecmanovic urges. “Be in the driver’s seat.” Make it a goal to do something positive every time you get on social media, whether that’s commenting a message of encouragement to a friend or sharing a life update of your own.

3. Check in with yourself after scrolling.

Take a beat to debrief. How do you feel after flipping through your feeds? “After spending time on social media, we should ask ourselves whether we feel better or worse and think about what it was that made us feel that way,” Wirtz says. If you notice a pattern—that your social media consumption is making you feel worse—consider reframing your strategy, or even taking some time away. A little break never hurt anyone.

4. Change who you follow.

Go through your list of friends or people you follow and ask yourself this question with each one: Does this account make me feel better about myself? If the answer is no, hit that unfollow button (or at least mute their content for a while). You don’t have time for that negativity! Move along and shake it off.

Sarah Ellis
Meet Our Writer
Sarah Ellis

Sarah Ellis is a wellness and culture writer who covers everything from contraceptive access to chronic health conditions to fitness trends. She is originally from Nashville, Tennessee and currently resides in NYC. She has written for Elite Daily, Greatist, mindbodygreen and others. When she’s not writing, Sarah loves distance running, vegan food, and getting the most out of her library card.