How to protect your mental health when using social media

Maybe it’s a happy couple with their toes in the sand on a Greek beach vacation. Or that family that always seems to walk together, no one ever complains about the hot sun and how long it will take to get back to the car. It might even be that perfect meal, expertly prepared on a busy weeknight.

These images of contentment and positivity can easily make those who see them on Instagram, TikTok or Facebook feel like everyone is enjoying life more fully.

US Surgeon General Dr Vivek Murthy warned this week that while social media can be beneficial for some people, evidence suggests it can pose a “profound risk of harm” to mental health and life. well-being of children and adolescents. .

Mental health experts say there are strategies everyone can use — some practical, some more philosophical — to interact with social media in healthier ways and limit the harm.

Dawn Bounds – a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner who was a member of an American Psychological Association advisory board on social media and adolescent mental health – said she was intentional about the accounts that she follows and videos she watches.

She enjoys following the stories of people who promote mental health and social justice, who “fill and inspire me,” said Dr. Bounds, assistant professor at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing at the University of California. , Irvine. . Dr. Bounds, who is Black, also likes content that makes her laugh, like the Black People and Pets account on Instagram.

At the same time, she avoids videos circulating online of police shooting unarmed people, which can be traumatic, she says. And with all the trolls and bad actors online, she said, “I have no problem unfollowing, muting and blocking people I don’t want in my chats.”

“It’s really about keeping the experience to yourself and not completely leaving it to these algorithms, because these algorithms don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind,” Dr. Bounds said. “You are your best protector.”

Your social media use may be excessive if it interferes with other activities like going out, exercising, talking to family and friends and, perhaps most importantly, sleeping, said Jacqueline Nesi, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown. University.

Dr Nesi recommended a more “mindful” approach, which involves “stepping back and thinking about what I see”. If the content makes you feel bad, she said, just unfollow or block the account.

Being aware of how we use social media is a challenge, Dr Nesi said, because some apps are designed to be used without thinking, to allow people to scroll through an endless stream of videos and targeted content – ​​sale of clothing, makeup and wellness products – which seems to feed our desires.

When people pick up their phones, it can help to be “curious” and ask “what made me do this?” said Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

“Am I looking for a connection because I’m alone?” said Dr. Vasan in an email. “Or am I trying to distract myself from a difficult feeling?”

She suggested asking yourself, “What do I need right now, and could I meet that need without turning to social media?”

Once people take stock of why they pick up their phones, they should unsubscribe from accounts that make them feel anxious and depressed or lower their self-esteem, Dr. Vasan said.

At the same time, they should follow more accounts that make them feel good, lift their mood, and make them laugh. Maybe these feature cooking videos with easy steps and ingredients or soothing clips of swimming pools being cleaned, which have racked up millions of views on TikTok.

“Think of these actions like spring cleaning,” Dr. Vasan said. “You can do this today and then repeat these behaviors periodically, because maybe new things come up in the news or in your life that trigger you,” or as your passions change.

Dr. Nesi recommended that people charge their phones outside the bedroom at night, not use it an hour before bedtime, and generally set tech-free times of the day when they put their phone on. out of reach. Dr. Murthy suggested that family mealtimes be device-free.

Experts have also recommended users turn off notifications that ping them when an account they follow is updated. They can also remove social media apps from their phones and use them only on their desktop or laptop computers. This could reduce the chances of coming down with a bad case of FOMO.

Dr Bounds said she deleted Facebook and Instagram on her phone after her 20-year-old son deleted Instagram on his phone. It helped her reduce the time she wasted online. “I did when I was writing grants,” she said. “It was a tactic I had to focus on.”

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