Social media

FILE - This June 16, 2017, file photo shows social media app icons on a smartphone held by an Associated Press reporter in San Francisco.

More than one-third of American adults view social media as harmful to their mental health, according to a new survey from the American Psychiatric Association. Just 5% view social media as being positive for their mental health, and 45% say it has both positive and negative effects.

Two-thirds of the survey’s respondents believe that social media usage is related to social isolation and loneliness. There is a strong body of research linking social media use with depression. Other studies have linked it to envy, lower self-esteem and social anxiety. 

As a psychologist who has studied the perils of online interactions and has observed the effects of social media (mis)use on my clients’ lives, I have six suggestions of ways people can reduce the harm social media can do to their mental health.

1. Limit when and where you use social media

Using social media can interrupt and interfere with in-person communications. You’ll connect better with people in your life if you have certain times each day when your social media notifications are off – or your phone is even in airplane mode. Commit to not checking social media during meals with family and friends. Make sure social media doesn’t interfere with work. In particular, don’t keep your phone or computer in the bedroom – it disrupts your sleep.

2. Have ‘detox’ periods

Schedule regular multi-day breaks from social media. Several studies have shown that even a five-day or week-long break from Facebook can lead to lower stress and higher life satisfaction. You can also cut back without going cold turkey: Using Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat just 10 minutes a day for three weeks resulted in lower loneliness and depression.

3. Pay attention to what you do and how you feel

Experiment with using your favorite online platforms at different times of day and for varying lengths of time, to see how you feel during and after each session. You may find that a few short spurts help you feel better than spending 45 minutes exhaustively scrolling through a site’s feed. Whenever possible, focus your online interactions on people you also know offline.  

4. Approach social media mindfully; ask ‘why?’

If you look at Twitter first thing in the morning, consider if it’s to get informed about breaking news you’ll have to deal with – or if it’s a mindless habit that serves as an escape from facing the day ahead. Do you notice that you get a craving to look at Instagram whenever you’re confronted with a difficult task at work? Be brave and brutally honest with yourself. Each time you reach for your phone to check social media, answer the question, "Why am I doing this now?"

5. Prune

Over time, you have likely accumulated many online friends and contacts, as well as people and organizations you follow. Some content is still interesting to you, but much of it might be boring, annoying, infuriating or worse. Now is the time to unfollow, mute or hide contacts; the vast majority won’t notice. And your life will be better for it. 

6. Stop social media from replacing real life

Using Facebook to keep abreast of your cousin’s life as a new mother is fine, as long as you don’t neglect to visit as months pass by. Tweeting with a colleague can be engaging and fun, but make sure those interactions don’t become a substitute for talking face to face.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. 

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