I hate social media. There is too much puffery, too many selfies and far too much meaningless content, and it all takes up way too much of our time. That being said, I also spend hours a day scrolling, tapping and liking content that I forget about as soon as the next post grabs my fleeting attention. Time limits are easy to ignore and with the other option being to study for my upcoming exam, I’d rather stay on Instagram.
This past Monday, that wasn’t an option. With the entire Facebook system — including Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp — out for around six hours, we were all forced to look elsewhere to spend — or waste — our time. After that brief break from the contemporary model for self-comparison, many people were realizing the difference they experienced in their mood when fate dictated they choose another activity for the time being.
Interestingly enough, the next day, Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, testified before Congress on a number of issues within the company, including Facebook’s knowledge of the harmful effects its products have on users, especially teenage girls. A major takeaway of her testimony is that Facebook is knowingly exploiting its users' well-being, putting profits and growth at the forefront of all decisions.
With so much happening in the last week with social media, maybe it’s time to reflect. Obviously, we think about social media all the time — we spend two to four hours a day scrolling through it — but most of that thinking is subconscious. How often do we truly evaluate our social media use, or how it makes us feel? In an ever-connected world consuming more and more of us, self-reflection is necessary to maintain a healthy relationship with social media.
When Instagram was out, how often did you pick up your phone out of habit, only to realize you had nothing to do on it? When you forget where you put your phone, is there a slight panic that can only be addressed by having your phone back in your hand? Because everyone uses social media, it’s hard to know when someone’s usage has gone too far. There is no benchmark to measure it.
But researchers believe that social media addiction is a real thing, and that it’s becoming more prevalent. Excessive use of social media has been linked to poor sleep quality, decreased work performance and an overall decrease in attention and increase in hyperactivity.
Every time you pick up your phone to peruse your socials, you’re chasing a high. Successful social interactions lead to an increase of dopamine in your brain. The same feelings that used to be triggered by making your friends laugh or kind words from a loved one now can also be received by likes on a post or nearly any notification from Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter. That impulse to check your phone comes from your brain looking to receive dopamine signals, which helps improve your mood. Unfortunately, they’re only temporary, meaning that in a few minutes, you’ll be picking your phone up again, in need of another high. One way to break that cycle is to disrupt the dopamine-driven impulses of your brain. Mute notifications, limit screen time and help your brain become less reliant on your phone for joy.
Beyond the physical and mechanical symptoms, an unhealthy relationship with social media can also significantly impact your mental health. Everyone has heard of FOMO, or Fear Of Missing Out, but its fun and snappy acronym clouds the significance of the issue. Remember that Facebook knows the negative effects Instagram is having on teenage girls? While many of those negative effects stem from body image, the other side of it is lifestyle.
Projecting and sharing a specific lifestyle is an essential part of Instagram’s platform, and it’s one that you can observe on other social media apps. By nature, social media encourages all users to share their best moments, experiences and pictures. We see it from our peers and influencers alike. Not only does constantly seeing the exciting and interesting lives of others lead to feelings of loneliness and missing out, but it also lends itself to feelings of inadequacy. This all compounds to present itself as increased depression and anxiety.
This may not come as a surprise to you. Following the leak of Facebook’s documents, the New York Times shared that Instagram’s harmful effects were known among many teenage girls. But why do we have to accept this as just a necessary evil of our online networking? The skyrocketing of mental health issues among teens and young adults has been documented and connected to digital media and smartphone usage. Instead of enduring these detrimental effects, do what you can to change their impact on your life. A few days ago, you were given a perfect starting point for self-reflection. Use it.
Being aware of your own relationship with social media, how it affects your mental health both directly and indirectly and how much of your time it consumes is essential to cultivating a healthier relationship with it. To know where you need and want to go, you need to know where you are now.
Strategies for any healthy relationship can be applied to your smartphone usage as well. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries; limit when and where you use the app. Be intentional; know what you want from the app before you open it. Most importantly, make sure that it is good for you. Curate your content so that it uplifts you and makes you feel better — not worse.
Our increasingly digitized world is not entirely damaging. Social media succeeds at one of its goals to keep us connected and can be a valuable resource when used responsibly. But too often, we allow social media to limit and replace our real world connections. We spend more time focusing on someone’s recent post than we do engaging in meaningful conversation with them. Online, there is a fine line between beneficial and detrimental. You need to be careful when walking it.
Despite my misgivings about social media, I am also guilty of mindlessly scrolling to pass the time. But Monday’s outage forced me to consider my other options. It’s something I should do more often. I’ve always loved reading, and I would rather have the impulse to pick up a beloved book than an aimless app. Instead of looking at photos of what people from home are doing, I should call them and talk to them about how their lives are actually going.
You are responsible for your own well-being. No one, myself included, can make you put down your phone, or change the way you spend your time. Potential negative effects of Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok aside, it is your responsibility to recognize their impact on you, evaluate its significance, and actively work to change it.
You can’t expect anyone, social media companies included, to do it for you. Cultivating healthy relationships can greatly improve your lifestyle and general mood. Be sure you’re maintaining a healthy relationship with social media, too.
Megan Buffington is a freshman journalism major. Reach her at email@example.com.