January 16, 2024

Scale back social media

Emma Lembke joined Instagram when she was 12. The last of her friend group to sign up, she had sensed the appeal of the app in the gazes of friends; people who used to look at her now looked at their phones. “I thought to myself, ‘There has to be something incredibly magnetic and magical and connective that pulls people into these apps,’” recalls Lembke, who’s now 21 and founder of the Log Off Movement, a non-profit that aims to help kids use social media in a healthier way.

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She soon began spending five or six hours a day mindlessly scrolling—and says her mental health and well-being deteriorated. Lembke recalls quantifying her worth by tracking likes, comments, and followers, and taking down posts that didn’t perform well enough. “It felt as though I was honestly addicted,” she says. “When I heard the buzz of a notification, I had that instant Pavlovian response to grab my phone. I finally asked, ‘What am I doing?’”

Many of us get lost in social media. Some data indicate that, worldwide, the average adult spends more than 2.5 hours per day immersed in social apps. All that scrolling can take a toll: Excessive social-media use is linked with loneliness, depressive symptoms, poor self-esteem, and decreased life satisfaction. “A lot of times we’re not even aware of how we’re using it, so taking the time to be a little more mindful and to think about what’s working, and what’s not, is really important,” says Jacqueline Nesi, a psychologist who studies the role of social media in adolescents’ mental health and writes the newsletter Techno Sapiens.

We asked experts how to reset your relationship with social media. These are their go-to strategies.

Craft a mission statement

When Lembke starts to feel overwhelmed by social media, she returns to her “tech intentions” document: a record of the ways she will and will not use apps like Instagram and Snapchat. “I use social media to connect with others, to learn new things daily, to scrapbook my life, and to express myself creatively,” it reads. “I do not use social media as a replacement for IRL.” Write your own mission statement, Lembke recommends, and stick it to your desk or wherever you might be tempted to pick up your phone and scroll.

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Start a digital consumption journal

Are all those TikTok lip-synching videos energizing you—or having the opposite effect? Challenge yourself to document your social-media use, noting how much time you spend on each platform and how you feel afterwards, suggests Etoulia Salas-Burnett, who leads the Center for Digital Business at Howard University School of Business. For example, you might note that at 8 a.m., you spent 5 minutes scrolling LinkedIn. “Did I feel good and happy for all my friends that are doing all these things, or did it make me feel a little less about myself?” she asks. Another idea is to rate your feelings on a scale of 1 to 5, Salas-Burnett notes. After just a week, you’ll have enough data to assess how much time you’re spending on which platforms and how it’s affecting your mood—and you can make changes accordingly.

Set specific goals

Pledging to “use social media less” is too vague of a resolution to be effective, Nesi says. Instead, set specific goals or boundaries for yourself. Maybe you get one hour a day to scroll, or three 20-minute social-media sessions. Then, set up systems to make that possible: “Put your phone in another room, or put it on ‘do not disturb,’” Nesi advises.

You can also get creative with the ways you limit your usage. Salas-Burnett’s friend—who loves to send her TikTok videos—recently decided to reset his relationship with the app by only allowing himself to watch five videos suggested on his “For You” page, and then five more from people he follows. “I thought that was a really cool idea,” she says. “You’re not time-constrained, but you only get to watch 10 pieces of content.”

Curate your feed

Social media isn’t all detrimental, points out Dr. Nina Vasan, founder and executive director of Stanford Brainstorm, an academic lab seeking to improve mental health. It can be particularly helpful for people who are shy or socially anxious, or who are experimenting with their identities, she says. Plus, it facilitates communication and connection. The key is figuring out what makes you feel sad or inadequate, and what inspires you to be your best, and then curating a feed that reflects the latter type of content. “Unlike, let’s say, the space in your closet, social media doesn’t restrict the number of accounts you can follow or number of things you say you like,” she points out. “Without such barriers in place, it’s easy to collect things that you don’t like anymore or that don’t fit you well.”

Go on an unfollowing spree

Is it serving you to keep getting updates about an ex, or from the reality star with an unattainable body? “Maybe you’re no longer obsessed with baby pandas and are now onto quokkas. You finished prom and don’t need to keep seeing fancy dresses,” Vasan says. “You no longer support that one political candidate, or they’ve dropped out of the race.” Unfollow the accounts that are no longer fulfilling a role, and instead, seek out those that are inspiring, educational, or related to hobbies you’d like to nurture.

Make a list of scrolling substitutes

If you weren’t swiping through social-media posts, what would you be doing? Make a list of activities you enjoy—and “make sure they’re intellectually, emotionally, or physically feeding you,” says Joseph Galasso, a clinical psychologist and chief executive officer at Baker Street Behavioral Health in N.J.. You might go for a walk, read a book, take up the guitar, or try out some crafting projects. There’s no way to check Facebook if your fingers are busy stitching embroidery.

Establish social media-free zones

Consider outlawing social media in specific areas of your home, like your bedroom, bathroom, or the kitchen table. Make it a collaborative effort involving your whole family. “That way, you can keep each other accountable,” Salas-Burnett says. For kids, a social-media “swear jar”—where they have to put a dollar in every time they get caught using it where they shouldn’t—can help.

Make it harder to access your apps

Friction is key to deterring yourself from mindlessly checking social media every few minutes. Keep your phone on airplane mode or disable Face ID so it takes you longer to log in, Nesi advises. Or, you could delete your most time-sucking apps from your phone and only visit them while you’re on your laptop.

When Lembke recalibrated her relationship with social media, she relied on a number of tools. The app Forest, for example, gamifies staying offline by planting virtual trees that grow larger the longer you remain focused. Another, called “clearspace,” requires users to complete a centering activity (like taking a deep breath) before opening an app. Stanford University’s HabitLab is a Chrome extension that helps internet surfers waste less time on sites like Facebook and YouTube through a variety of interventions, including blocking videos and displaying a clock measuring total usage time. “One of [the interventions] is so evil, and it works,” Lembke says. “You try to go on [X] and it buffers—you have to wait 30 seconds before you can get on. Small things like that make you never want to go on.”

Take a tech sabbatical

Fourteen years ago, Tiffany Schlain—an artist, filmmaker, and founder of the Webby Awards—started putting her phone away from Friday evening until the same time Saturday. “Each week, I get to have this reset,” says Shlain, author of 24/6: Giving up Screens One Day a Week to Get More Time, Creativity, and Connection. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. It really keeps me grounded.”

Many of us could similarly benefit from fine-tuning what Shlain describes as an essential skill: “the courage to turn off the outside world and turn on the inside world.” If you’re intrigued, experiment with different amounts of time offline: one day a week, a weekend, a month. Shlain recommends letting the people who would expect to hear from you know what you’re doing, and as much as possible, making plans to see them in person. She kicks off her phone-free Friday evenings, for example, by enjoying a meal with family and friends. She’s noticed that time feels luxurious when her phone isn’t attached to her body; she often has her best creative ideas when she’s offline. “Instead of looking at it as ‘taking away,’” she says, “look at what you’re getting back.”

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