How to realistically break your social media habit, according to therapists
Ever since the introduction of social media apps, people have slowly developed a deeper relationship with their cell phones. What used to be a device that only stored phone numbers and digital games like snake can now hold gigabytes of information and connect us with millions of people across the world.
According to a 2018 Deloitte study, the average person checks their cell phone 52 times a day and prefers to use their device to access social media. While one might view this as a negative thing, our phone can be a vital tool for our work and life as certain apps and platforms can help us connect and share with other people and loved ones.
But excessively checking social media has been proven to create anxiety, self-esteem issues, and stress. Thankfully, we’re realizing how these devices are affecting us as according to the study, 60% of 18- to 34-year-olds think they use their phones too much, and 63% of all consumers are trying to limit their usage.
If you think your relationship with your social media accounts needs to be evaluated, then you’ve come to the right place. We talked to therapists about what to look out for and what to do if you’d like to cut down your social media use.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of social media use
“Social media is a double-edged sword,” says Rachelle Strauss, health and wellness coach and co-founder of the U.K.-based Health and Wellness Grid. “Some of my clients have found support groups online where they feel a sense of belonging. I’ve also had clients who have found me through social media and [have] helped with their health goals. And others have made close friendships through Facebook groups,” she explains.
But it’s not all chat rooms and camaraderie. Strauss highlights the risk areas with social media use, including addiction to devices, lower self-esteem from comparing one’s self to others, trolling, and abuse.
If you experience amplified feelings of loneliness or insecurity while you’re scrolling on your Twitter or Instagram feed, or feel anxiety immediately after exiting out of your social media apps, then it might be worth trying to reduce your social media use. Even if you don’t see negative side effects from your social media use, you may be using social media as a time filler.
“What I often see in my clients is that social media serves to fill the void of not knowing what to do next. Instead of reflecting on what they are feeling and what would be a good thing to do next, they automatically reach for the phone, says Ana Sokolovic, psychologist and life coach at ParentingPod.com.
How to realistically take a social media break
1Understand the scope of the problem.
Do you spend four hours a day on social media? Two hours? Six hours? Knowing your baseline use will allow you to make a plan for your specific situation, says Strauss. If your phone has a screen usage function, start there—otherwise, you can use a time-tracking app on your phone or computer to get a sense of how you’re spending your time.
2Set goals and create a plan.
“Social media can be genuinely addictive,” says Strauss. “And just like with any addiction…some people do better with a cold-turkey approach, [while] others need gentle reductions and rewards.” Does a week-long detox feel right? Will cutting your social media phone time in half give you the time back you’re looking for? Define what result you’d like to see—mornings spent reading the paper instead of scrolling Twitter. An extra hour each day to go to the gym?—and how you’d like to get there.
Sokolovic suggests asking yourself what experiences you would like to have if you weren’t spending so much time on social media and using that answer to drive your plan.
3Reduce access or exposure.
All plans will need to have some element of reducing your use or access to social media—but what that will look like will depend on you, your habits, and your goals. Try these therapist-sourced ideas, listed from least to most extreme:
- Curate your feed. Consider the kind of content that makes you feel happy and the kind that doesn’t, says Jor-El Caraballo, therapist and co-founder of Viva Wellness. “Sure, you might like X apparel brand, but do you feel isolated because none of their images feature people who look like you? Then maybe it’s time to unfollow them so that you’re not absorbing the negative messaging that you don’t fit with their brand,” he says. If your friends’ posts bother you or make you feel anxious but unfollowing them could cause drama, then make liberal use of the “mute” function.
- Schedule your social media time. Use apps that block your access to social media once you’ve spent a certain amount of time on them. Or set alarms in the morning and evening to signal when you can look at your feeds for the first and last time each day. Rachel Gersten, therapist and Viva Wellness co-founder, suggests shutting down your apps an hour before bed for both your mental health and sleep hygiene.
- Take applications off of your phone—or at least turn off the notifications. While you want to keep your Facebook account active to stay in the loop on event notifications and your cousins’ baby photos, do you need to have access to these things on your phone? Sokolovic cites a client of hers who uninstalled the majority of his phone’s social media apps. “Removing the [social media apps] was an easy way [for him] not to access them. Instead, he started to spend his time listening to audiobooks, watching TED talks, or taking walks during his breaks at work,” she says. If you need to keep the apps closed, turn off their proactive notifications so that you only see what’s new when you decide to open them on your phone.
4Be intentional and positive.
After reducing your access to social media or doing a time-boxed social media detox, be thoughtful about how you reintroduce it back into your life. Annalise Harness, a licensed professional counselor intern, suggests to her clients for them to set an intention before getting back on social media. “If you know why and for how long [you] plan to [be] on your phone, it’ll help [you] to keep [yourself] accountable,” she says. Are you looking for news updates? Wanting to share a funny tweet? Either way, give yourself five minutes to do that thing and get off the app. If you realize you’re just going on to kill some time, contemplate whether there’s something else you can do instead, like calling a friend, listening to a podcast, or going for a walk.
But if you’re using social media to build community, Caraballo suggests for you to truly engage in that process instead of auto-scrolling and auto-liking content as it streams by. “I would issue a challenge to people: Instead of just liking a picture, also add in a comment and tell the person why you like it. This can be a great way to work on building a community online and spreading positivity with very little investment,” he says.
After putting some of these tips and recommendations to the test, I found that muting and unfollowing people whose lives or feeds frustrate me has been the most gratifying part of the process. I got on social media to connect and share with people who teach me and inspire me.
I’m on month four of not having notifications turned on and Facebook uninstalled from my phone (I haven’t yet been able to pull the plug with Twitter, but I’m hoping to get there), and I find I open my social media apps less often without those immediate flags about who’s engaging with my content and what they’re saying. I can wait a day before responding to a DM and no one is worse for it—who knew?