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Social Media and Mental Health: How to Make Your Relationship Healthier

Much sinister information about tech companies like Facebook has come to light in recent years — but with each new leak, the understanding of social media and mental health seemingly gets worse. Most recently Frances Haugen, a former product manager at Facebook, claimed that the company knows it is harming young people’s mental health. During her testimony in front of Congress, Haugen said Facebook has prioritized its profits over acting to protect teens’ safety. In particular, Haugen helped make public documents from Facebook that show the negative effects of misinformation on its platforms including Instagram and the harm it’s caused — especially to teenage girls.

It’s no secret that social media sites, especially image- and video-based ones, can promote comparison and contribute to negative mental health impacts like eating disorders. Posts that cause harmful thinking patterns and behaviors aren’t limited to only affecting teens, though. Many of us have developed unhealthy habits around using social media.

If you’re working on changing the way you use social media or how reliant you are on it, you’re not alone. “For me it’s not just about deleting apps off my phone, but it’s being intentional when I’m online. Even deleting my apps during the day helps me disengage. If it’s not on my phone, then I’m reaching for my phone less,” says L Brinks, a 23-year-old working on how they use social media.

We spoke with expert sources, including therapists, to ask about some of the most harmful ways social apps can affect us, and compiled some tips and tricks if you want to work on your relationship to social media.

Identify why you use social media the way you do

Sometimes we use social media to find and create community. But other times it’s easy to get caught up in creating a persona, chasing validation, and disconnecting from our internal lives.

“Identify what is motivating you to sustain the toxic relationship to social media and re-interrogate why you use social media in the first place. For some people, it’s to stay connected to a sense of community, it might be business-related, like to share your work or art, for others it may be a source of fun. Stay rooted to that intention and set boundaries for yourself,” says Alex Jenny, LCSW, also known as The Drag Therapist. “Ask yourself how it feels to be following certain people. If someone’s posts make you feel insecure, inferior, upset, resentful, jealous, ask yourself if it might be better to unfollow.”

As a teenager, now 22-year-old Hannah says she was overly fixated on how many likes a post got and who was interacting with the stuff she posted. That’s not an uncommon phenomenon, whether you’re a teen or not. Olivia Rodrigo even talks about it in her song “Jealousy, Jealousy”: “Com-comparison is killin’ me slowly, I think I think too much ‘bout kids who don’t know me. I’m so sick of myself, I’d rather be, rather be anyone, anyone else.”

When her circumstances changed, Hannah was able to reform her relationship with social media. “When I went to college and made real life friends, I began to lean less into social media as a form of community (although I still do use it as such in certain ways). Instead of filling all of my community-based needs, I adapted my social media usage to suit the needs it was best for, like keeping up with my long distance friends and keeping an eye on current events,” she says.

“The most common pattern I’ve seen from people who use social media in a way that harms them is the projection of their own insecurities onto the lives of the people they follow,” says The Drag Therapist. Her clients will say things like “I wonder what it’s like to be them,” “I wish I looked like that,” or “They have it so easy.” She explains those feelings also come out as aggression and resentment, in statements and questions like, “Why do people feel the need to post so much? They can’t all possibly be actually happy. They must be so shallow.”

If you’re relying on social media to find satisfaction or comfort from “imagining people with seemingly perfect lives as portrayed on social media as annoying, secretly miserable, or terrible people,” it’s likely you’ll also become miserable.

Instead of an all-or-nothing approach, curate your feeds more carefully

On that note, if you recognize that certain kinds of posts are fueling negative or unhelpful feelings, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to fully delete social media. You can also change who you follow and how you interact with specific kinds of content. “Curate your social media experience in a way that brings you joy, connection, relief, peace, laughter, reflection, whatever is connected back to that root intention,” says The Drag Therapist.

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Hannah had already stopped using Instagram, Snapchat, and image-based apps because they caused too much rumination and comparing herself to others. Recently, she deleted the Facebook app, too. To be intentional about her social media use, she avoids following people whose content frustrates her or makes her angry, and blocks or mutes those accounts. Hannah also checks in with herself when she’s mindlessly scrolling, and asks if she’s enjoying what she’s doing or if she needs to log off and do something else.

Find or create other sources of joy and comfort

If you find yourself using social media to “turn off” your brain after a long day or it’s become an automatic activity for when your energy is low, it might be time to reassess how you unwind, explains Kina Wolfenstein, LMSW and trauma therapist. “Can you have podcasts, TV shows, movies, audiobooks, or phone games accessible to fill that purpose? Are you using social media when you’re craving social engagement and connection? If so, can you take the time to directly text or call a friend instead?” Perhaps you’re using social media scrolling as a way to self-soothe. “In that case, can you have other soothing activities handy like a coloring book, fidget toys, or a good shower?”

Wolfenstein’s main advice is building up other coping skills so that you’re not overly-reliant on social media as a source of joy, comfort, or validation. “Sometimes when we just try to ‘cut back’ on our use of something like the internet it won’t be effective unless we have other replacement resources and skills that can fulfill a similar purpose,” she says. “It’s going to be hard to change your relationship with social media unless you have a variety of other things you can do to care for your mental health.”

Engage with what’s on your feeds critically, and take time away

One way The Drag Therapist says you can be more intentional about social media and mental health is to “journal about posts and content you see on social media so that you’re inviting another way to engage with the content that isn’t just about scrolling.” If you notice that you have strong feelings or thoughts about something, “slow down the pace at which you’re consuming social media,” she says.

The Drag Therapist explains that starting a group chat with close friends is one good way to continue to find and create community, and stay connected to others while being careful about how you use social media in a broader sense. “Reaching out to friends more via text in general is good. Having specific requests like, ‘Hey, I’m gonna take a step back from social media but if you see funny memes or threads that you’d think I like, will you send them to me?’ works.” This can even increase the intimacy you experience with others you care about.

Wolfenstein explains that giving yourself a break for a self-determined amount of time to reset the way you use it can also be markedly helpful. It doesn’t just have to be deciding to take a few hours off, either. You can take more time away, and find accountability buddies to help you stick to the plan. “Taking a designated month or two off of social media can be great for many people’s mental health,” she says.

It is worth noting that social media is not totally evil, of course. It’s an important source of joy and connection for many, especially people from marginalized communities, like disabled people, queer and trans people, and those who are geographically isolated, or emotionally or physically unable to access in real life connections, says Araya Baker, counselor, educator and suicidologist, says. Ultimately, he explains, “We should all prioritize cultivating the presence of hope, humor, and nature across our timelines, just as much as we strive to utilize social media to explore healing and learning. While the latter goals are crucial to personal development, so are moments of pause from self-responsibility. Simple reminders to laugh or remember to go outdoors can support our mental health immensely, while also accounting for our triggers.”

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Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Instagram Is Terrible For Your Mental Health, Study Finds

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