I went on Facebook this morning to check the address of the place I'm meeting tonight at with a friend. Twenty minutes later, I still didn't have it written in my agenda, but I saw a cute dog cafe video, checked the best places where to travel with kids (I don't have kids), read a story about a new women-only taxi app, and got jealous discovering that someone will be speaking at a conference I hoped to speak at. Then something distracted me from my laptop, and when I got back to it, I couldn't remember why I had opened the Facebook in the first instance, but felt that I haven't accomplished much in my life.
Yes, these things happen even to me, although I professionally help people spend their online time more consciously. It shouldn't therefore come as a surprise that nearly seven million Brits feel depressed when using social media, according to the recent research by Opinium UK.
We can experience an ongoing stress from the negative or sad news, or constantly compare ourselves to more successful or luckier friends who go on amazing holidays, move countries for awesome jobs and purchase expensive properties. We obviously know that social media represents an idealized version of people's lives, but still can't help envying them. In fact, a few years ago German researchers found that the main motivation of people going on Facebook was to get social gains in reputation and improve their social status. In other words, comparison is inevitable.
We all need a mental diet
The main problem with Twitter or Facebook is that we don't really have any control over what kind of information is thrown at us when we log on.
Imagine you popped into a restaurant for a quick lunch with colleagues, and together with a healthy tuna salad you've asked for, your waiter brings crisps with fat salsa on the house. Your colleagues start eating them and invite you to join. You didn't want crisps, you wanted your healthy salad, but you feel tempted to try a bit, and long and behold an hour later you realize you have eaten a whole set of junk food, and your salad is only half-finished.
The chemistry of food or information consumption is similar. Our body is wired to find sugary or fatty foods tastier, as it is to find discovering new information and social recognition appealing (these are all sources of a "cheap" dopamine, a hormone of pleasure). If you are presented with a choice of an apple or a chocolate brownie (or reading a Facebook post), you'd eat the latter first, unless you have an incredibly strong will power or gastritis. It doesn't mean, however, that all your diet should be made of chocolate brownies.
Luckily for our physical bodies, our society supports healthy eating, and we have some control over how much and what we eat. On social media, however, we have no control over what we "eat" or see (no equivalent of a menu to order from). Even worse, most of us feel the social pressure to use social media (according to 56% of the respondents), but there are no social norms around how much is too much. As a result, by being on social media we overfeed ourselves with various emotions we have no control over. As we don't give ourselves time to digest them, this leads to depression and anxiety.
Healthy social media habits
If you are not part of 10% of the population who simply cannot log off social media (which is a mental health issue and requires an adequate treatment), but simply want to have a healthier relationship with it, the following three rules will help.
First, realize that social media is an analogue of a chocolate brownie. Too many of them will upset your stomach and figure. Too much of social media will make you anxious, unable to concentrate and full of self-doubt. Set the limits of how many minutes (hours) you use it per day, and use a blocking app (GetFocusd, Antisocial, Freedom - there are a few) to prevent access to it the rest of the time. Or use social media scheduling tools like Hootsuite if using it for work.
Second, never go on social media when tired. When we are tired, the part of our brain responsible for self-control does not work, and so you cannot decide when to stop and how much time you are spending there, or to understand emotions arising from reading various posts.
Third, when you are on social media, be active - do not mindlessly scroll through the news (this is proven to cause depression), but rather actively comment and engage with people. Be truly social, and this will pay off.
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