While social media is a useful tool for information gathering, sharing, and connecting with community, it is often a source of emotional and psychological stress that can drain our inner resources. For those of us experiencing more than the usual stress and anxiety these days, practicing social media self-care is necessary for maintaining mental health. Here are some tips for managing your social media use so you can glean its benefits and avoid its pitfalls.
- Limit social media time. It is so easy to do a quick check of social media while waiting on line at the grocery store or when you get bored at work. But these “quick checks” often drain our focus, take us away from the present moment, and sometimes cause anxiety. When that quick check leads us to see disturbing information online, it’s hard to process that information in a useful way, especially if you’re in the middle of doing something else. Instead, save social media for designated times of the day, for example, a 25-minute block of time here or there. (You can even use a timer, like the popular Pomodoro Technique.) Instead of checking social media while at a stop light (that’s dangerous! And you’ll probably get honked at!) or at the grocery store, use that moment as a reminder to be aware of your surroundings, to make eye contact or chat with strangers, or just take a few deep breaths.
- Practice filtering information. Publications on the Internet recycle information all the time, and we need to learn how to quickly spot articles that aren’t sharing anything new. Avoiding both click bait and recycled news takes mental precision and self-control, and plenty of practice. Once you’ve read a particular piece of news, in addition to well-written opinion pieces and calls to action, it’s not helpful to keep re-reading that same news or those same opinions re-stated slightly differently (especially when the information is particularly stress-inducing). A quick glance at a headline can usually clue you in as to whether you’ve already read enough about that particular news item. Fight off the FOMO when you think this might be the greatest story you need to read on this topic. If it is, you’ll likely hear people chatting about the story offline too. The story will never be hard to find later. Your mental health is far more important than the need to click on every last link. When reading the same information over and over, particularly the same difficult information, you aren’t learning anything new; you’re just increasing your stress. Take the information you need and move on.
- Relax without a device. I often catch myself collapsing onto the couch after work or a few hours of active parenting, and reaching for my smart phone to check Facebook. While my intention is to just take a breather and relax my body for a few moments, instead I often get sucked into reading bad news (because unfortunately there’s a lot of bad news these days!). Preserving our mental health does not mean turning a blind eye to the horrors of the world. It means taking care of yourself so you can better respond to that information. So now when I have a few minutes to relax and find myself reaching for the phone, I stop myself. That moment can be the trigger to make a different choice. Put the phone down and take some deep breaths instead, stretch, look out the window, feel your body on the cushion. The devices in our lives aren’t going anywhere. They just need to be kept in check.
- Check in with your body regularly. We all know that spending too much time hunched at a desk isn’t good for us. Particularly when we get sucked into the rabbit hole of social media, which can be especially over-stimulating, we can forget about our bodies. When you feel yourself getting lost in comment threads, streams of tweets, or clicking on yet another article, use any of those moments to pause. How does your body feel right now? Where in your body do you feel tightness, pain, or stress? Do you need to get up and stretch or take a walk? This may seem obvious, but actually noticing your body when you’re lost in a flood of information is easier said than done. Make it a practice to check in with your body regularly.
- Don’t engage in negativity. I was bullied in middle school, and now I naturally try to avoid heated conversations online. I un-friend anyone who verbally attacks me or my friends. Bullies are good at baiting people into fights, so avoid taking the bait. It’s just a drain on your energy. Speak up clearly and calmly when you need to (especially when defending someone else who is being bullied), respectfully exchange ideas with people you disagree with, but back away when anyone gets too aggressive. You are an adult, and it’s not worth compromising your mental health for an argument that isn’t constructive.
- Do engage in useful groups. Whether on Google groups or Facebook, groups can help focus your activity online. Though no group can ever be totally free of drama, with smart admins who encourage respectful interaction, groups can foster camaraderie, fun, stimulating conversation, and brainstorming. I prefer groups with fewer members, but even big groups with thousands of members can become a supportive community. Engage in these groups in ways that lift you up and help you learn about important issues and plan actions. After spending time in different groups formed around issues that are relevant to you, you’ll gravitate toward the ones that are most useful.
- Use the Internet for good. Though trolls are good at stealing all the attention, there is plenty of inspiring, uplifting, and enriching content on the Internet. Make sure a decent portion of your time online is spent satisfying and strengthening your soul. Visit sites with helpful, rich content, like Brainpickings.org and Onbeing.org.
And while you’re at it, stay in touch with organizations doing good work that you support. Focus on the issues that matter most to you (for example, if you care about immigrant rights, keep up with HIAS, or for climate change check out Citizens Climate Lobby). Sign up to volunteer or donate money if you can. Choosing to spend time learning about and contributing to organizations working to make a better world will do wonders for your sanity and sense of well being. And by helping others, you’re taking an active role in creating the kind of world that sustains all of us.