- Grace McMahon
Protecting your mental health on social media
Social media has been berated in the headlines, there’s been lots of concern about the safety and our use of social media and it might have got you worrying about your use. Despite the headlines, social media has its good qualities, but the way we’re using it is taking its toll on our mental health.
Over the past two years or so, our use of social media has become more and more frequent, we relied on it during the months we were in lockdowns, to provide some entertainment and keep us connected with our loved ones. It helped us keep up to date with what was happening for other people (not that much was happening for most of us), how friends and family were making the best of a tough situation, and allowing us to communicate and see them virtually while we couldn’t in person.
But we had a lot of time on our hands, which meant many of us fell back on social media in times of boredom, especially because our usual coping mechanisms weren’t available to us. It was a stimulus while there wasn’t much we could do that kept us coming back for more. What we maybe didn’t realise was how that was building a habit that many of us are now finding difficult to change.
You might not have noticed how your own use of social media has changed, or you might be the parent of a young person nearly pulling you’re hair out over how much time they spend on it. But we don’t often see the danger when we’re on it. And that’s the thing about social media, we can still have a good time despite all its faults.
Where’s the danger?
It’s not completely necessary to banish it from our lives, it’s such a huge part of our culture now that it’s actually unrealistic to avoid it completely. People are running businesses, finding their side hustle, helping and inspiring others.
The issue is what we’re looking at while we’re on it. Like every other type of media there are glamorised versions of lifestyles, appearances, jobs, and expectations. It’s a window into the best bits of the lives of others, people we have things in common with to people we’d never know personally. But this is showing us an unrealistic picture that’s changing how we view our lives, on a huge scale. We compare our whole lives (the good, the bad, the ugly) to these images of ‘perfection’ and best bits (in such an overwhelming way), and end up feeling rubbish, not enough even worthless for some.
This is challenging because it’s so easy to not realise what we’re doing, we mindlessly reach for a fix, and mindlessly scroll through so many aspects of different lifestyles and people making it look easy. We’re absorbing so much information at once that it’s difficult to recognise how it’s making us feel, till we do come off it and go back to our - now appearingly - ‘dull’ lives and having to make dinner knowing that the washing up is also your job - not as flashy as those instagram stories huh?
When we’re not seeing the challenges these people face, the low moments they experience, the hardships - that we all face - we forget they even exist for these people behind the accounts. It’s not a full picture but we forget because we can’t see, and then think we’re the only ones experiencing challenge.
There’s also the darker side of social media, the more dangerous and scary side that often attracts the attention of younger, more vulnerable people and this is a problem in itself.
Unfortunately, while there is monitoring of these platforms, it’s almost impossible to keep on top of everything that’s online.
Often we don’t know it even exists till we’ve found it, so while monitoring could improve, there is a responsibility on us as users to use it carefully.
Social media isn’t exactly the problem, the way we use it is becoming problematic. The mass-consumption of virtual realities is spilling into our realities and impacting our mental health. We need to make changes to how we use it rather than whether we use and learn ways to cope with what it can do to our minds.
5 ways to protect your mental health on social media:
Be intentional with your use
Some of us find taking breaks, deleting apps or setting time limits on our devices to be helpful. Others find this restriction makes it even more tempting. Take the time to decide to go on a scroll - even if it’s to scroll through reels for 20 minutes. Intention means actively choosing, it doesn’t mean only going on for a ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ purpose - if reels give you a laugh and help you switch off from work or other responsibilities then great. Notice when you’re mid way through a scroll that you didn’t actively choose to go on. There won’t be big changes overnight and intention takes practice, small steps, making some active decisions and noticing when you didn’t.
Be conscious of what’s in your feed
We’re looking at so much stuff all at once, it’s difficult to take it all in, but we’re always taking something in even subconsciously so it’s important to check in with what you're looking at and who you’re following. Whatever we’re looking at impacts how we view our worlds and ourselves. Cultivate an environment that you enjoy looking at, be conscious of the accounts you’re following and what it’s doing to your self-talk. Detox your following lists, remove people you don’t really like, or that wind you up, or that you’re comparing yourself to, that make you feel bad about yourself.
Notice how it’s making you feel
When we’re using social media intentionally it’s easier to be in the moment with it, notice how it’s making us feel when we’re on it. Pay attention to those feelings and recognise what is causing them - from filters making you feel duped, to feeling unproductive or lazy for spending ‘too much time’ on it. When it’s making us feel bad, choose to come off it and do something else.
Make time to connect with reality
Most of us do this naturally, we might be racking up the minutes on our screen time but we’re still engaged in the real world, we still see friends or go for walks. But sometimes we don’t notice how little we make time for it, it’s almost like ticking off a job on the long list of to dos. To prevent the negative impact of social media spilling into your reality, take time away from the screen. Scheduling time to be both on and offline helps us find balance and feel like we're in control of these decisions, and less likely to get lost in the virtual world.
Remember it’s the best bits
We know it’s the best bits, everyone’s saying it most of the time. But do we remember while we’re scrolling? Not easily, it’s hard for the brain to think past what we’re seeing in the moment, we can’t see the challenges in other people’s lives but we can see our own. When we’re on it, it appears that what we see is in real time, everyone’s out and about doing exciting things - but social media is a glamourised version of each of our lives. Even those of us who do get real and admit to tough times don’t do it too often - but that’s not really its purpose. It’s a show and tell platform, we show people what we want them to see, we’re looking at things people want us to see. Keep reminding yourself of this while you’re scrolling!
When we put effort into changing habits, we might be expecting results to be right around the corner. But that’s unlikely to be the case, we’re not always going to remember to be intentional or in the moment or limiting our time online. We’re going to forget and mindlessly jump on insta. Be compassionate with yourself when this happens, consistent effort will see change but consistent effort can be hard work and often feel exhausting.
Social media management: it’s unrealistic to get rid of social media, with its good qualities, uses, and accessibility. Don’t pressure yourself to make huge changes in fear of the impact on your mental health, use these tips one at a time, go easy on yourself and notice when the results work their way in - it might be slow but they will be there with practice.