To say my relationship with social media has been rocky for the past few years would be a total understatement. Yes, there have been large chunks of time where I’ve absolutely loved everything about it, but there have also been times where we just weren’t a great fit.
To understand this story a little more, allow me to take you back a few years. I joined social media just as I was starting high school, which was in the earlier days of Facebook. Social media was totally different back then: the biggest difference being that you couldn’t update in real-time. Apps didn’t exist and most of us didn’t even have a phone that could access the internet, so if we wanted to see what people were up to, we’d have to wait until we were on a computer.
Also read: The Side of Self-Care We Don’t See Online
Technology has advanced a ton since then, and so did our relationship with social media. As you know, we went from seeing updates from some’s weekend after the fact to getting a real-time feed of what someone is having for dinner or what they look like when they first wake up.
Why does it matter?
Never before in human history could we immediately gain access into the lives of friends, foes, and strangers alike. You can see what someone’s currently eating, get updates on the process of someone’s bathroom renovation, and see pictures of someone’s dream vacation… all before you’ve gotten out of bed in the morning. It’s a lot, in a really short amount of time.
I realized early on that social media is a highlight reel: you only see what someone wants to show you. We see the wins without seeing the work or stress that went into it. We see the happy moments without seeing the sad moments. Heck, we can see someone’s perfectly clean house without seeing the pile of laundry just outside of the frame. And since I’ve been so aware of this, I’d like to think I’ve set some pretty firm boundaries with social media over the years. However, with that said, it’s still really easy to fall victim to the hands of social media… especially during this past year.
I know I’m not the only one who felt like my world was completely flipped upside down this past year. The 2020 Coronavirus pandemic impacted every single one of us. We all faced adversity while trying to stay safe and navigate this new reality we were thrown into, and social media reflected that. It quickly became divided, heated, and very politicized. I’m not going to downplay it, this negativity became too overwhelming for me.
The boundaries I had set on social media were no longer working earlier this year. I found myself getting upset as I scrolled, sucked into the negativity online, and was completely overwhelmed. So I stepped away for a few months to focus on myself and help others.
Stepping away from social media is not an easy decision at all. We live in a society where social media has become the backbone of our social connection, and since we’re social creatures, the thought of stepping away and missing out on something is not so comfy. Not to mention, I also run a small business that relies almost entirely on social media. I’ve taken small breaks from social media here and there in the past but never to this extent.
But this time felt different. I knew that if I didn’t spend the time working on myself and improving how I interacted with social media now, then things would only get worse. And after one emotional morning of hemming and hawing, I decided this was what I needed to do.
I found an app I could use to schedule posts to keep my business going without needing to log onto social media, I recruited my fiancé and a couple of close friends to keep me in the loop of anything important that may come up, and I logged off.
I won’t lie, it felt extremely uncomfortable at first. I realized how much time I had filled just mindlessly scrolling, and I found myself almost unsure about what to do.
I focused my time away on two main things: working on my mindset and improving my relationship with social media. I wanted to make sure that this wouldn’t be a quick fix, but a lasting change to help me navigate this digital world we live in.
I’m happy to report that things are much better now than what they were then. I’ll never claim that things are perfect, but I’m able to be back online once again. I’ve found a framework that has worked so well for me, and since I know I’m not the only person who feels this way, I wanted to make sure I shared it with you, too. I know that social media can really cause such a pain point, and it can also feel impossible to do anything about it. Like we’re stuck on this hamster wheel, unable to change directions, slow down, or get off. But we all deserve to feel our best, both online and offline.
Let’s start with a disclaimer.
This is not a magical fix where things will suddenly be perfect. If you’re looking for a quick fix to suddenly make everything feel perfect, this isn’t the framework for you. But if you’re looking for a lasting change, this is the foundation you need.
Just like any relationship, your relationship with social media will take time to improve. Similarly, we need to remember that we’re all unique: we have our own lives, our own stressors, and our own relationship with social media. The framework isn’t to be taken as an exact guide, but instead, a baseline that you can adjust to meet your own needs. Make sure you customize it to your own life and make changes when necessary.
The Framework I Followed to Improve My Relationship With Social Media
1. Logged off
I really wish there was a different step I could start on, but I’m going to start with arguably the toughest: logging off. Trust me, I get it… this is easier said than done. Even just the thought of logging off can feel incredibly uncomfortable and undesirable, and we immediately start listing off reasons as to why we can’t do it. Our entire culture is now structured around social media. Social media is so much more than just pictures: we use it to connect with our friends and family members, to find a restaurant to go to for dinner, to advance our careers or find clients, and countless other reasons. For years and years, I told myself every excuse in the book about why I couldn’t leave social media, so trust me when I say that I totally understand where you’re coming from if this makes you uncomfortable to think about – it’s not an easy decision at all, and one that you need to come to on your own. Here are some things that helped me with this step:
- Do this in a way that works for you. Go slowly if you need to, pick and choose the apps you want to avoid or limit, and take it day-by-day. An all or nothing approach will not work for everyone, so listen to your own needs and go from there.
- Keep things like Facebook messenger or WhatsApp if you need them for work or family obligations.
- If you use social media for work, try using apps to schedule posts for you and log in on the computer (or a web browser on your phone) instead of using the app if possible.
- If you can’t log off at all, try turning off notifications.
Focus on the ways you can make it work for you, as opposed to the ways you can’t.
2. I began researching how this whole thing works
Okay, so I’m not going to claim I’m some sort of social media expert… I mean, at the end of the day, my knowledge of this stuff is surface-level at best. But learning more about how social media operates was incredibly beneficial for me to work on my relationship with it. It can be easy to forget while we’re scrolling, but social media is an industry, and a pretty large one at that.
The Social Dilemma is a Netflix documentary that features interviews with a ton of current and former social media executives, and I highly recommend you watch it sometime. As a quick overview, one of the biggest takeaways is that social media is designed to be as addictive as possible to hold your attention to keep you coming back. Have you ever found yourself scrolling, unaware of how you got there in the first place? Maybe you opened your phone to check the weather and somehow found yourself unconsciously scrolling through Instagram? That is not an accident. There are teams upon teams of highly intelligent people with highly advanced algorithms whose sole purpose is to understand your behaviours and curate a user experience that keeps you hooked.
When you understand a basic overview of social media, you can understand that it’s not necessarily your fault if you’ve found yourself addicted to it or overwhelmed by it. We’re sort of just handed an app that is customized to our own interests and designed to hold our attention for as long as possible, and left to figure it out on our own, including if and when we need to create boundaries and limits. If we don’t know we need boundaries or limits in the first place, then we would never think to do it. So first thing’s first, you need to remove any guilt you may have if you’re feeling overwhelmed by your relationship with it. Once you’ve done this, then you can start to look into your experience more objectively and start setting boundaries.
Shop Digital Prints
3. I identified my triggers
It’s not easy to be vulnerable with yourself and identify your triggers, especially since a lot of us have spent a lifetime pushing down our own feelings. If you aren’t already aware of this, spend time identifying what sorts of content are triggering for you. As hard as it may be, you need to be honest with yourself.
One thing for me was that I realized that different things on different sites made me uncomfortable. On Facebook, it was seeing updates from acquaintances I knew over 10 years ago. On Instagram, it was the influencers with the perfect lives or the folks spreading conspiracies and lies. On Twitter, it was the constant fighting.
Actually, let me retract that last statement. It was the constant fighting on every single platform.
Once I could pinpoint these and felt like I had worked through them in a way that worked for me, I could find ways to manage my experience (I’ll talk more about that soon).
4. I removed it from my phone when I was ready to go back
I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t think social media is 100% the issue here. In fact, there are a ton of great things that it brings about. To me, it’s like saying that money is the root of all evil: money is just a tool, a means to the end. A few months ago I heard someone say that money and alcohol are like magnifying glasses. When you’re broke and mean, or sober and mean, you’re going to get meaner when you have money, or meaner when you drink. In my humble opinion, the same happens with social media.
When I’m struggling before I go on social media, I’ll struggle even more while I’m scrolling. When folks are struggling in their lives off of social media, it’ll translate through anger or hostility on social media.
So when I first went back on social media, I treated it like a test. Initially, I stuck to checking it on the computer, which really eliminated the mindless scrolling that would happen on my phone. When I got comfortable with that, I started using it on my iPad as well as an old phone I had lying around without a sim card. This still restricted where I could go on, but allowed me to feel more connected to society.
I’m aware that this is quite a privileged opportunity that is not accessible to everyone. And honestly, looking back on it I also don’t think this is a totally necessary step. If you can, I think it can be helpful, but if you can’t, that’s okay too. A great alternative could look like setting stricter boundaries or limits.
5. I set boundaries
Boundaries are super important in every area of your life, including social media. I’d like to think that I have set so many boundaries around social media that I’m much more in control of my experience, as opposed to the other way around. Here are some examples:
- I don’t check social media when I first wake up. Some people use a set time that they avoid it for, and while I did that initially, I’ve found that the time sort of varies day-to-day. The goal is to listen to your needs and adjust accordingly
- My fiancé and I both don’t keep our phones in our bedroom. Whenever I tell people this it always feels like a much bigger deal than it really is. We use digital alarm clocks to wake us up, and I love it.
- I don’t bring my phone to the bathroom with me…. this seems straightforward enough. I suppose the only exception is pubic restrooms for safety purposes, but I do not scroll while I use the bathroom.
- I’ve turned off most of my notifications. Apart from basic or necessary ones like texts or phone calls, I’ve turned off pretty much all of my notifications. Doing this helps to ensure you’re in the right state of mind before you log on, as opposed to logging on because you see someone’s commented on a post.
- I never post real-time. Not only does this help you stay present in the moment, but it also keeps you stay safe by not disclosing your real-time location.
- I limit how much I talk about my personal life. I don’t share every picture I take, every trip I go on, or every experience I have. While I’m not opposed to sharing glimpses into my life at all, I’ve realized that I lean too heavily into external validation when I post too much.
- I use app limits. There are a couple of cool things that I love about the app limit on iPhones. Firstly, you can customize the length of time. I’ve set things like Instagram and TikTok to a limit of one hour a day, but you can also make them a lot shorter. Plus, you can also set downtime, which limits the time of day you can use the app. If you’re wanting to use these apps more (maybe you’re sick, or you’re trying to make plans with your friends), then you can enter in a password and you’re good to go.
6. I hid/unfollowed/muted triggering people or content
This. is. so. important. After identifying triggers in #3, it’s important to protect yourself from them. Mute or unfollow any content that you find triggering or uncomfortable. This can feel incredibly difficult, depending on your relationship with the person, so allow me to break it down a bit.
- Typically, muting content means their posts won’t show up on your feed anymore. You’re still following the person, you just don’t see their content unless you search it out. This is a great option if you want to remain friends or civil with someone, but regularly find their opinions uncomfortable or harmful.
- Unfollowing someone is more straightforward, and a perfect solution for random people you don’t talk to regularly or aren’t friends with. As a society, we need to remember that there may be a million and one reasons why someone may not feel comfortable following our content, and it’s okay if we want to unfollow each other.
- Some platforms allow you to take a temporary break from someone, too. If you know that a particular topic is uncomfortable or triggering now, but that it won’t be that way forever, taking a short break may be ideal. This is really good during an election or season of life when the conversation is particularly heated. The benefit of this is that after a certain amount of time (30 days or so), they automatically come back onto our feed… we don’t need to remember to do it ourselves. After that, we can choose to do it again, or take other actions if necessary.
7. I started asking myself why I wanted to post something
This is something is that is pretty vulnerable to do, too. It’s easy to get caught up in posting content without really diving into the reason why we want to share it. For example, if you go out for dinner and want to share pictures from the night, ask yourself what the real reason is that you want to share about it. Are you wanting to rave about a fantastic restaurant that you think everyone should go to? Are you proud of your outfit and want to share it with people as inspo? Are you really happy and want others to see that? Are you looking for validation that you look okay? Are you wanting to show off to people that you’re out and having fun? The goal isn’t to guilt yourself for the reason, but rather, to just be aware of your own behaviours. The more we can be honest with ourselves, the better our relationship will be.
8. I stayed consistent with my boundaries
Setting boundaries is one thing… sticking with them is another. I’ve found myself stuck in this cycle where I feel like my boundaries are working, so I’ll start to lessen them… only to feel worse again, and then be forced to reinstate them out of desperation. Stick with your boundaries for as long as you need to, make adjustments when necessary, and be prepared to bring them back. Improving your relationship with social media isn’t a one-and-done type of situation; it’ll take time and effort.
9. I repeatedly checked in with myself
Typically, when you’re feeling sick, you shouldn’t wait until the last possible second to get help… the same goes for social media. For me, the sooner I can catch on that I’m not feeling 100% on social media, the easier it is to step away and feel better. If I wait until I’m at my breaking point, I know I’m going to have a harder time getting back on track.
10. I’m quick to log off when things get rough again
When I’m not feeling 100% on social media, I put it away. Whether that looks like deleting the app, logging out, or putting my phone away, I’ve found that frequent short breaks help to prevent one long/extensive time away. We need to remember that social media is supposed to be a tool. However, tools are meant to be used by you, not the other way around. When it’s not working for you and dictating your life or your feelings, it’s time to put it away. Believe me, when I say, anything on social media can wait – you are more important.