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How to Protect Your Mental Health When Using Social Media

You don't have to give up social media, just learn how to manage it.

 dole777 on Unsplash
dole777 on Unsplash

Social media has been the target of criticism for a while now. Hundreds of articles have been written about the negative impact of social media on mental health. But most of the research on its impact does not propose practical solutions. While it is important for us to understand why social media can be harmful, the reality is that it is here to stay. So it makes more sense to learn how to use it in healthy ways, rather than focusing on its negative characteristics. There are things that we can all do to make social media a safe and healthy place for everyone who chooses to use it.

Think about why you use social media

People choose to engage with social media for lots of reasons. Some people like to post photos of vacations, times with family and friends, and other special events. Some people use social media as a platform for discussing political and social issues. Many people use social media to stay in touch with people with whom they may not otherwise have the opportunity to connect. All of these reasons are positive, and they can all be motivations to stay on social media. But we have to manage our own assumptions, expectations, and judgements when navigating social media posts. For example, the way people present on social media is an image that we have to take at face value. If looking at people's vacation pictures makes us feel jealous or sad, the problem isn’t the people sharing it. It’s important to recognize that something within us is creating that response. Then, it’s up to us to decide if the reasons we are on social media are more valuable than the things about it that make us feel bad about ourselves or our lives.

Observe your emotions as you peruse social media

It’s important to examine your feelings as you’re scrolling—the photos that make you jealous or sad, the articles or comments of friends that make you angry—and the implications for your mental health after you’ve spent a couple of hours using the apps. If you notice that most of your emotions are negative in response to social media, think about what you should do. Perhaps there are certain apps that are more triggering than others, which may indicate you need to at least take a break from them. If posting your own photos or comments does not make you feel good, consider why you stay on the social media sites. Removing them from your devices, even temporarily, can give you the space necessary to think about what needs to change so that you can feel better about your social media engagement. However, if you find that you have a mixture of emotions, think about the positive experiences that you have and how you can prioritize them.

Identify content that you want to see less of

We all have limits to what we can tolerate. If there are friends that you need to unfollow, that’s okay. If there are popular magazines or commercials that constantly remind you of things you’d like to change, you can block them. Spending time managing your social media accounts could feel very freeing and put you back in control of what you consume. This does not mean that you are avoidant or trying to tune out from the real world. Instead, it means that you are creating a social media environment that allows you to feel positive emotions and to connect with people that you enjoy. Think of it as a form of self-care. We decide who we want to keep in our lives as a friend or romantic partner. We can do the same thing with certain forms of social media or certain content that consistently triggers negative reactions.

Engaging with social media is going to be a mixed experience. It can call attention to our flaws and make us feel bad about ourselves. It can make us want what others have, and it can increase our sense of loneliness. But using it can also bring us joy, make us laugh, and keep us in touch with friends from the past. So we don’t have to totally disconnect. We can mindfully adapt our social media use, just like we might set boundaries in traditional relationships. Working to cultivate social media’s positive effects is the key to keeping it a part of our lives and protecting our mental health.

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