A few months ago, I went through a period of extra stress — I was travelling a lot, not sleeping well, exercising less than usual, and missing my beloveds. On the road, I found myself turning to social media as a form of stress relief.
But instead of making me feel better, social media made me feel so much worse.
Firstly, I was overwhelmed by the incredible amount of information I was taking in in a short period of time, and it made me feel panicky. (I caught myself at one point worrying that I needed to learn everything under the sun about cryptocurrencies — until I came to my senses and realized no, I don’t!) I was falling down informational rabbit holes left, right, and center — and emerging more frazzled than I was before I picked up my phone.
I also found that I was comparing myself to the people on my feed. This happens to a lot of us. We look compulsively at the curated images that others post online, and it makes us feel bad about ourselves. Why is everyone else so happy and content with their lives? Why doesn’t anything bad happen to anyone else? (To be fair, I’m not posting pictures of myself when I’m sobbing on the floor with tears and snot everywhere, so why should I expect others to?!)
These are the traps that social media sets for us — and too many of us fall for it.
But there is a way to use social media consciously that maximizes the positives and minimizes the negatives. With a bit of intention, we can create a social media ecosystem that works for us, not against us.
The best starting place for cleaning up your social media world is to curtail who you follow. It can be overwhelming to follow too many people on any given platform — I think of it as more noise to cut through to get to the good stuff. It’s also not healthy to be following people who make you feel bad. Remember, you are in control of who you follow, and you’re free to be ruthless!
Start by doing an audit of who you’re following, and unfollow, unlike, or unfriend people, companies, and media outlets that make you feel bad. (And if it’s a friend or colleague you feel awkward about deleting, most platforms have a private unfollow or mute function that makes this easier).
As you’re doing this, consider your values. Social media may seem trivial, but it’s actually not! It contributes to both economic power and social influence. Are the people, companies, and causes you follow on social media in alignment with what you believe in and how you want to live in the world? If not, say goodbye.
At this point in my life, I refuse to follow, click, like, consume, or engage with anyone or anything that doesn’t align with my values. Doing so doesn’t contribute to my happiness, and it doesn’t help create the world I want to live in.
You might have to use social media consciously for a while to clock what is making you feel bad and what is making you feel good. This can be an ongoing process. For example, I follow several fashion accounts on Instagram. Fashion is a fun hobby for me, but sometimes I find myself feeling uncomfortable about the sexual objectification of women that’s present in the industry. So if an account makes me feel “icky” more than once, I click unfollow immediately.
Sometimes I’ll automatically unfollow an account as soon as I see a post that I find offensive. Other times, I’ll say to myself, “Sometimes I don’t love what’s happening on this feed, but I’m going to check in on how I feel about their next few posts,” and then I take my time to decide whether I want to keep following them.
In the name of reducing the noise, I also limit the number of people I follow and friend. This keeps me vigilant about the kinds of content I’m paying attention to. It also generates a manageable number of posts to digest and helps me to avoid information overload. Find the number that works for you and stick to it.
Limiting the number of accounts you follow has other benefits too — it’ll force you to decide if you really need to be seeing posts from old colleagues or college roommates who you only knew for a minute, but whose children and pets dominate your feed.
Similarly, limiting the number of platforms you engage with can be helpful. Twitter is great for engaging with political issues, LinkedIn is great for building professional relationships, and Instagram is great for connecting with people who share your interests and values. Which of these uses best serves you right now? Be intentional about where you’re putting your time and attention. (You may decide you don’t need to figure out Snapchat after all!)
Limiting the amount of time you spend on social media can also help to keep you in check. If you want to know exactly how much time you’re spending on social media, you can download an app that will track your daily and weekly screen time. You might be surprised at just how many hours a week you’re scrolling through Tweets!
Seek Out What Inspires You
If you have an interest, passion, hobby, or cause that you really care about, chances are you can find limitless ways to engage with it on social media. Don’t just let the content come to you — take some time to actively seek out accounts that connect with your values and your interests.
For example, I love the poet Rumi, and there are a ton of accounts that post his quotes daily. Sometimes when I’m in need of a boost, I’ll look for them. I also love to see them pop up on my feed, which may not happen if I didn’t actively seek them out.
Another powerful factor here is the algorithm. When you’re more deliberate about the kind of content you follow and engage with, a platform’s algorithm is likely to catch on to what you want to be seeing. This means you’ll be served up the kind of stuff you actually like more often. Essentially, what you click on, like, share, and comment on influences what you end up seeing when you log in.
This is the main reason that I enjoy Facebook — the algorithm has caught on to the fact that I’m a Brown feminist activist who wants to interrupt white supremacy, and so my feed reads like a social justice rally. Being on this platform fills me up, because it’s showing me content that’s near to my heart.
As social media weaves its way deeper into the fabric of our minds and our lives, it’s important for each of us to learn healthy habits that will work for us.
But don’t forget the real world! Sometimes what you really need to pick you up is to go for a walk or call a friend. Just remember — you’re in control!
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