How to Make Social Media Less Depressing (Without Quitting Entirely)
Being extremely online can actually harm your mental health. Here, women who are active on social share their tips for streamlined feeds.
Does any of this sound familiar? Open up Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter; start scrolling, next thing you know it’s 30 minutes later, you’ve forgotten where you’re sitting, and you’re in a dark digital hole that began by clicking on the profile of someone you barely know. By now, your breathing is shallow (take notice next time – it’s called screen apnea), and you’ve begun thinking you’re less than the queen you actually are: your body doesn’t look like theirs, your relationship status or lack thereof becomes apparent, your job seems lame, the world feels like it’s basically falling apart. So dramatic but also practically cliché at this point, and we’ve all been there. Now, we’re learning how to climb our way out.
Even casual users can tell that things feel pretty not great after falling into a digital rabbit hole. Researchers have found that using social media obsessively causes more than just anxiety. In fact, testing has found that spending too much time online can cause depression, ADHD, impulsive disorder, problems with mental functioning, paranoia, and even loneliness. Technology is built for dependence and "behind every screen on your phone, there are generally, like, literally a thousand engineers that have worked on this thing to try to make it maximally addicting" says Aza Raskin, the engineer who designed infinite scroll. Still, so many of us learn this the hard way and have to find healthy ways to manage our screen consumption, so that we don't get consumed in the process. Here's how I staved that off when my own scrolling habits were threatening to drag me under.
In 2016 I went through a significant work breakup that led to the subsequent dismantling of my social circles, self-worth, future plans, and priorities. The change was really a blessing that set me up to reposition my purpose, but at the time, like any breakup in a social media era, it was much harder than it needed to be largely because of technology.
I found myself constantly second-guessing my self-worth and trying to prove my value, after internalizing a “less than” feeling leftover from my former job. Around this time, a death in my family catalyzed a major wakeup call that put my priorities into perspective. I realized that if I wanted to make meaningful changes in my life, I couldn’t afford to have distractions — and social media was a huge one. I found myself triggered by the presentation of others’ seemingly too-good-to-be-true lives (Instagram was my drug of choice, where the fake-seeming images of perfection run rampant). I started noticing that some of the people I was “friends” with on social media were merely remnants of my past work life — people who would only hit me up for a favor or a spot on a guestlist. For all the time I spent scrolling, I wasn't getting anything in return.
While technology doesn’t discriminate by gender or any identifier, it seems to have more negative effects on the mental health of women. “Social media use is more strongly associated with depression in girls compared with boys,” explains Jessica Clemons, MD, a NYC-based psychiatrist known as Dr. Jess. "There is growing concern that high utilization in teens, specifically girls, may play a role in suicide rates tripling in this demographic between 1999 and 2014.” The sheer amount of time spent on social media along with the idea of limitless social contact plays heavily into the emotional and mental impact it has on us. The old saying, “comparison is the thief of joy” seems to hold true, as a recent study shows evidence that people feel depressed after spending a great deal of time on Facebook, because they feel badly when comparing themselves to others. Often, we think about comparisons where we feel inferior, however the opposite — thinking you’re better than others — can have just as damaging of an effect.
Realizing I was wasting time consuming content from extraneous people who didn't share my core values, I quickly employed the KonMari method to my social media feeds. I went from being extremely online and always available, to only checking Twitter for news items once a week, disabling Facebook Messenger on my phone, and using Instagram only for design inspiration. Paring my use of social media way back like this felt much more healthy for me, and I found myself spending less time online, and feeling inspired instead of drained when I did check in.
But anyone who shops, promotes their work, jokes with friends, finds out about new music, and compares themselves to TV characters on social media knows it's not just about looking at each other's perfect lives (something that would be easy to just turn off once you found it harmful or downright annoying). We live online these days; it's how we express ourselves and take in the news — something that also triggers a whole variety of feelings. So we have to find ways to re-establish emotional homeostasis. Dr. Jess says for more emotional balance, “start with leaning into your support system; have an honest conversation about your experiences and feelings." I can almost guarantee people in your inner circle are feeling the emotional burnout of being constantly available online, too.
Last month, Anna Sian, a photographer and brand marketing professional, took a break from social media. Spurred by the desire to reconnect more deeply with herself and the people she cared about, Sian deleted Instagram from her phone, embarking on a nearly month-long detox. “It’s so important to be aware of the kind of things you are putting into your brain all the time, even if subconsciously,” she says. But before your eyes glaze over at the concept of a digital detox, hear me out: I have some clear takeaways on curating your social media experience to protect your mental health, so you don't have to quit.
Tip 1: Curate with purpose.
With a purpose-driven approach to social media, Sian unwraps the notion of curation with the logic of a true marketer: “You have to understand what you’re curating for, what your purpose for each platform is, and why you are choosing to engage,” she says. "Is it for inspiration, brand building, or just for family and friends?” Once you define your purpose, you can begin to identify where the value lies in the content you are consuming, but without it, you’re bound to waste precious time — like making a meal with no recipe. (Possibly poisoning yourself in the process, to continue the metaphor.)
Tip 2: Set boundaries and take breaks.
If you use social media as a promotional tool for your work, the boundaries can be a little blurry. Some social media influencers, beholden to the very tools that have enabled their popularity, point to the mental woes associated with their “jobs” by donning a new phone case that reads: "Social Media seriously harms your mental health." You may have seen the surgeon general's warning phone case design made popular by Gigi Hadid or Hailey Bieber. “This case’s popularity suggests it’s not just typical users who feel the platforms’ effects: [These] beautiful people who have millions of followers and whose careers depend on Instagram amplifying their looks also worry about the effect social media has on their brains and self-esteem,” writes Ashley Carmen, a technology reporter at The Verge. For the average non-influencer person, it's a little easier to separate from social media without risking your job and income source.
“I limit my use of social media to when I am not at work,” says Dr. Jess. “I set an alarm so that I use it for no more than 20 minutes at a time to avoid getting sucked into a rabbit hole [unless, I am hosting my Instagram live].” Dr. Jess hosts weekly mental health Q&As on Instagram Live and says that social media should be used as a tool, and if technology is contributing to anxiety or a depressed mood, that limiting use or taking a break can be helpful.
Tip 3: Use All the Tools in Your Toolbox: Share, Follow, Mute, AND Unfollow
“I encourage people to unfollow accounts that make them feel anxious or insecure, and follow accounts that are educational, inspiring, and encouraging,” says Dr. Jess, and this is a strategy that Geordan Briscoe, an art curator and single mother based in Baltimore, put to use early on. Realizing her self-care routine was nonexistent as a result of her non-stop working mom schedule, Briscoe decided to make a conscious effort to take more breaks — from technology and IRL interraction — often retreating into nature to fend off the stress and negative emotions she sometimes associated with social media.
Carving out more time for herself lead to the reassessment of her purpose on social media, and she found that she really used social media to share and be part of a community. “Through sharing memes and stories, those experiences can help to uplift and encourage the next person, and that’s kind of what I’ve found my purpose on social media to be,” says Briscoe. "It confirms the idea that you’re not the only one." Briscoe was early on the feed-curation method, knowing the value of what appears in your feed: “I don’t mute anybody, I will just straight unfollow you [laughs] — if I don’t like what you’re posting today, I am probably not going to like what you post tomorrow, and once I stop caring, I'm done.”
Tip 4: Assess what you actually need from these platforms.
I also had to carefully dissect the content I was consuming and create new digital environments for my social accounts. My purpose is both professional and personal on social media, so sometimes I feel a lot of pressure to stay connected. But feeling like I need to be on social, and the things I actually needed to be doing on social, are not the same. While I have come to terms with the necessary evil of digital self-promotion, I have also become less passive about cutting people loose and not being as available to anyone who might hit me up.
Driven by both the sheer amount of hours I was clocking on my screen-time tracker on social media apps, and as experimentation for this piece, I decided to take a break from social media as well. Just a long weekend, which may not sound like much but for someone who is über-connected, stepping away allowed me to experience many benefits I was unknowingly depriving myself of. I felt more in control of my feelings while I was experiencing life with no distractions. On a simple walk through the neighborhood, I found myself talking to people on the street, instead of taking pictures of the street. I felt fully immersed in what was happening — more connected to myself and others. After 24 hours sans phone, I didn’t really want to get near it, and after 72 hours, I started to realize how much more space I had in my brain for other thoughts and creative ideas. Imagine that.
Tip 5: Keep up with regular feed housekeeping.
Here’s now I cleaned up my feeds. One day I went in and ditched the “influencer” ecosystem I followed (I thought, “what business do I have being privy to strangers' lives, anyway?”). The next day, I updated my bios so they reflected my actual purpose publically, and throughout the month, I muted stories of people I don’t know very well but would still like to be connected with in the future (mostly for business purposes). Honestly, it was a pretty simple clean-up once I decided to do it. I now spend less time on social media after taking a break recently and have vowed to disconnect on weekends. If you're averse to the digital detox idea, then keeping your feeds clean and emotional-clutter free is going to be the name of the game for you. The more time you spend on social media, the more intentional you need to be that your accounts are geared toward you and your needs, not just surfacing someone else's perfect life and letting them slide into your DMs with demands on your time and attention.
After fine-tuning my feeds to match my new priorities and outlook, I realize how much control and agency I actually have over my experience. Now, I'm back to using social media — not the other way around.