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effects of social media

A Psychologist’s Guide to Reducing the Impact of Social Media

A client told me she recently felt the impact of social media after scrolling through pictures of her friends travelling to exotic locations and eating delicious food. She felt bombarded by their displays of happiness and adventure, and miserable about her own mundane activities.

If you have experienced something similar, you are not alone. Research shows that the impact of social media can be deep and negative, affecting our emotional well-being, our moods and even our self-esteem. And with the holiday season in full swing, there is more opportunity to feel the negative effects of social media use; right now, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and more are overloaded with ‘year in review’ posts highlighting successes, travel posts, party posts, weight-loss posts and resolution posts. And let’s not forget #blessed.

All of this can trigger what I call ‘anxiety by social comparison’ – that is, a feeling that your life just doesn’t stack up next to your peers’. So, here are 10 rules for social media use that will help you remain centered at any time, but particularly during the holidays.

10 rules for surviving the impact of social media

1)  Ask yourself if you are using social media as a distraction.

Social media often ends up being a time-pass. When we are bored or exhausted, it is so easy to log on and be entertained in a non-demanding way. But this kind of consumption is a lot like binge eating: It tastes good and fills time, but other activities are healthier.

So, this holiday season, choose self-restraint and enjoy the stillness that comes with cutting off. Look for other activities to do or people to spend time with to mitigate the impact of social media. I always feel some days are beautiful precisely because we choose not to use social media.

2)  Ask yourself if you are confusing social media for the real world.

We see so much of people online that we often form their identity based on their digital avatars. Pictures and videos of our arguments, illnesses, or career struggles don’t make it onto our news feeds – or onto anyone else’s. Being cognizant of the fact that social media friends are often more than what they depict online is the first step in filtering through the onslaught of buoyant, adventurous narratives to reach more realistic conclusions about people’s lives and ease the negative effects of social media use in your life.

3)  Meet people/ friends beyond your circle of social media friends.

The impact of social media can create a feeling that, because you already know so much about others’ lives, you don’t need to meet them in person. This can lead to feeling isolated, lonely and even sad. Choose to meet your friends and family offline and get to know them as real people.

4)  Be mindful of what emotions social media triggers for you.

Sifting through images of other people’s beautifully decorated houses, neatly dressed and well-behaved children, and lavish holiday dinners can trigger feelings of jealousy, doubt and even sadness.

A client once mentioned that the impact of social media on him was a feeling that, “I’m the only one in horrible relationships. Everyone seems to have such a perfect life.” Acknowledging your feelings, without judgment, is a first step toward healthier social media use.

5)  Choose to be self-compassionate.

Once we realize that we are overwhelmed or feeling negative, it is important not to be self-critical. Rather, we should show ourselves compassion by taking a moment to experience our emotions. Only then can we take ownership of our feelings without blaming ourselves, and take steps to ease the negative effects of social media in our lives.

6)  Try to avoid using social media at night.

In my practice, I’ve seen the impact of social media use at night in the form of bedtime procrastination, sleep problems (supported by multiple studies) and extra work stress as people try to catch up after obsessive nighttime indulgence. All of this can compound holiday stress, both on and offline.

7)  Choose not to have social media on your phone.

As a psychologist and active consumer of social media, I can vouch for the magical effects of social media apps being removed from your phone. After a hard day at work, instead of scrolling through Facebook or Twitter, allow yourself to relax and close your eyes, or just observe, or listen to music. If you choose to use social media, keep it on a computer. It’s a small change that adds tremendous value to your mental health.

8)  Practice self-restraint.

In my personal experience, it’s not just the question of “What are others doing?” that drives social media overindulgence, but our own difficulty with self-restraint. Facebook or Twitter can become an addiction, of sorts, that consumes us. Setting brief, fixed times – no more than four a day – when you access or answer social media can help mitigate any negative impact of social media.

9)  Allow yourself to experience moments, rather than capture them.

Recently, a friend went on holiday and chose to post her pictures to social media every day of her month-long trip. Her constant updates made me wonder if she actually got to enjoy the beautiful monuments and architecture in her photos. Living your life for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram audiences can take away the joy of savouring an experience and being in-the-moment with your loved ones – or even yourself.

10)  Develop your personal yardsticks for happiness.

When social media is buzzing with people sharing photos of concerts, checking in to fancy restaurants, wearing designer clothes, and travelling to new places, it can be easy to lose sight of what actually makes us happy.

Choose to be authentic to yourself and develop personal standards for what happiness means to you, which will help you cut through the clutter of everyone else’s narratives.

Social media is a careful and conscious curation of information to create an image that is only partially, but never completely, the story of an individual. Remember this when you find yourself mired in doubt, loneliness or sadness or experiencing any other negative effects of social media.

And if you’re still feeling an impact of social media, a little digital detox might make a good 2017 resolution.

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