One of the worst parts of writing about mental health for a living is how often therapists tell me I need to cut back on social media. Because frankly, I’m not going to cut back on social media anytime soon. Like, yes, I know social media and mental health have a contentious relationship and I understand why they suggest it and know deep down that I would be better off if I could free myself from the grips of social media and yet. And yet.
What I have learned over the years, though, is that it still is a worthy endeavor to figure out how to make social media work for you. If you’re not going to use it less, there are still ways you can use it better. With that in mind, here are some tips that actually work for me, both from therapists I’ve interviewed and through my own trial and error.
1. Narrow down which social media apps you use.
I know I’m not the only one who can get stuck in a hellish, endless loop of switching between Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. Even if I don’t like Facebook (seriously, who still likes Facebook?), I often wind up there because when I run out of things to scroll through on my preferred apps, I’m like, “Guess I’ll see what those kids I went to high school with are up to.”
So even if you know yourself enough to know you’ll never go on a social media cleanse, consider taking a smaller step by cutting back on the apps you don’t genuinely enjoy. I haven’t gotten myself to fully deactivate Facebook yet, but I’ve realized in the very least, I sure as hell don’t need the app on my phone to mindlessly scroll through.
2. Actually comment and reply (nicely).
It’s such a small thing, but if you’re anything like me, you spend a lot more time passively liking posts than you do commenting on them or replying to them. Therapist Jor-El Caraballo, L.M.H.C., previously told me that one thing he’s committed to doing recently is going out of his way to leave positive comments when he’s on Instagram, such as telling an artist he likes he digs their work. Same goes for gassing up your friends. Either way, a compliment here and a bit of engagement there might make the whole experience a bit more positive.
Because reminder: Doing nice things for others is a solid way to boost your own mental health and happiness, and even though a nice comment might seem small, you probably know what a nice little pick-me-up an enthusiastic comment on a pic can be.
3. Curate smaller lists (or create an alt account).
Oftentimes, my social media feeds—especially Twitter—give me whiplash. You never know what you’ll run into as you scroll. Funny joke! Devastating political update! COVID-19 fearmongering! Cute animal vid! Hot selfie from that person I thirst-followed! Someone RTing Donald Trump’s tweets onto my timeline again for some reason! Etc. etc. etc.
In a lot of ways, that’s kind of what you’re signing up for when using social media. But there are times when I don’t want to risk making my mood worse by spinning the roulette wheel, and for those times, smaller lists give you control over your experience. If you didn’t know, Twitter has a Lists feature that allows you to curate groups of accounts in one place to scroll through. You can use this strategically to, say, have a list of wholesome meme accounts and cute animals to enjoy when you don’t have the stomach to peruse your main timeline. Similarly, some people have whole separate accounts where they only follow feel-good accounts.
4. Turn off push notifications.
This works for both disengaging from potentially stressful news and helping yourself be less tied up in comments, likes, and other engagement. If you find that you’re someone who posts something, then anxiously waits to see how it performs, I’ve found that I can train myself to ease up on that behavior by cutting it off at the source. Instead of waiting for notifications to roll in when I post a pic or joke that I hope will do numbers, I close the app and check it later. Don’t get me wrong, it’s hard at first (I love validation!) but eventually, it gets easier.
You can also use push notifications strategically. Like, if you’re waiting for certain news and know that, left to your own devices, you’d keep opening and closing the app until it came through, turning on push notifications for certain accounts can be a useful way to disconnect. It gives you a little peace of mind knowing that if something happens or if someone important posts, the news will find you.
5. Stop hate-following.
Does this need to be said in 2020? Apparently so! Hate-following can take many forms, from following contentious public figures to stay “informed” to following that picture-perfect lifestyle influencer whose pics make you feel terrible every time you scroll past them. Same goes for personal or professional “rivals” you’re always comparing yourself to or even just those terrible people from your hometown who you stay Facebook friends with so you can see what weird conspiracy theory they’ll rant about next.
“But!” you argue and I have argued in the past. “Is it really that bad if it makes me laugh (or motivates me or gives me schadenfreude or whatever)?” Well, no, but is that what’s actually happening? It’s worth checking in with yourself about how you feel when these people pop up on your feed; even if you followed them for one reason, you might find they make you feel annoyed, sad, insecure, or any number of other emotions instead. If that’s true, time to unfollow and unfriend, my friends.
6. Mute liberally, too.
And here’s a softer option for more nuanced situations. If the people you don’t want to see on your feeds anymore are friends, family, or coworkers, unfollowing and unfriending might not be a statement you want to make. Don’t get me wrong, I find it kind of silly these moves can be so loaded, but listen, that’s the world a lot of us live in these days.
And in case you need to hear it, it’s totally okay to need to do this, even to people you really care about! There are a ton of valid reasons why you might want to limit your social media exposure to certain people. Maybe you’re having a rough time and seeing a ton of posts about how much your best friend is thriving makes you feel resentful in ways you don’t want to. Or maybe someone you adore IRL just has an annoying social media presence. It happens. So don’t feel guilty—muting doesn’t hurt anyone and you can always go out of your way to catch up on their account when you’re in a good headspace to make sure you don’t miss anything important.
7. Follow a bunch of new accounts, too.
While I get rid of a lot of trash on my timeline via the last two tips, it’s occasionally nice to just…go out of my way to seek out and follow cool new people! Typically, I follow new accounts pretty passively—a funny joke gets retweeted onto my timeline and I click through to the original account or a friend sends me some Instagram post and I follow the person while I check it out.
But what fun is that? There are a lot of lists out there of cool accounts to follow depending on your interests, and platforms like Instagram and TikTok make it easy to discover new accounts via your Explore and For You Page, respectively. We have a few roundups here at SELF that you might like, too, like this roundup of cat Instagrams, these Black mental health resources which include a ton of accounts to follow, or these body-positive influencers.
8. Set smaller boundaries around use.
Okay, I know I promised I wouldn’t tell you to use social media less, but part of adjusting your social media for mental health does include boundaries. And some of those boundaries might lead to you cutting back on your use. But they don’t have to! Over the years, therapists have given me a lot of tips around how to set social media boundaries, and they pretty much fall into the following buckets:
This can mean putting time limits on yourself for how much total time on social media you spend per day, or it can also look like deciding when your designated “social media time” is, like during your lunch break or after work hours. Similarly, you might set a general rule that you won’t check social media until after breakfast or whatever. Your smartphone might have screentime tracking capabilities to help you with these boundaries, and this list of apps includes distraction-blocking apps that could come in handy, too.
This often boils down to making certain places off-limits to social media, such as your bed or the dinner table. (You can also do the opposite by deciding that you’ll only use social media in certain areas, but that tends to be more restrictive.)
Lastly, boundaries around what social media you use and how you use it can definitely improve your experience. We touched on this in the other tips, re: cutting down on which apps you use and curating who you follow. But you can set other content-related rules, too, like deciding you’re not going to use social media as your main source of news.
9. In general, just aim to be more intentional.
Intentionality comes up again and again when I talk to therapists about social media (and most things, tbh). When we do things on autopilot, we’re not the best at choosing activities that make us feel good and we don’t always notice when activities are making us feel bad. I know that the mindlessness of social media can be part of its allure, especially during these times when we’re so mentally overloaded with everything else going on, but you can be intentional in small ways and it can make social media more enjoyable overall.
What does that look like, exactly? You can start by asking yourself, “Why do I use social media?” Not in an existential sense or anything, but to become more aware of what you’re hoping to get out of these apps. If you’ve ever, say, closed Twitter on your desktop browser, only to open up the app on your phone without meaning to a second later, you know that sometimes, we only use social media because it’s automatic, not because we actually want to.
So figure out what your goals are—and those goals can be small or silly, like laughing at memes or feeling marginally connected to other people while you live alone or to, yes, get little buzzes of validation when someone likes your post. With intentional motivation as your North star, it makes it a lot easier to pause occasionally and ask yourself, “Wait, is this what I want to be doing?” and adjusting accordingly. Because sometimes, the answer is, “No, no it is not.”