How to protect your mental health when using social media

Maybe it’s a happy couple walking on the sand on a Greek beach holiday. Or that family that always seems to be hiking together, no one ever complaining about the scorching sun and how long it takes to get back to the car. Maybe even that perfect meal, expertly prepared on a busy weekday evening.

These images of contentment and positivity can easily make some who see them on Instagram, TikTok or Facebook feel like everyone else is enjoying life to the fullest.

The US Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warned this week that while social media may be beneficial for some people, evidence suggests it may pose a “profound risk of harm” to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.

Mental health experts say there are strategies everyone can use – some practical, others more philosophical – to engage with social media in a healthier way and limit harm.

Dawn Bounds – A psychiatry and mental health nurse who was a member advisory board of the American Psychological Association on social media and teen mental health — she said she deliberately approached the accounts she follows and the videos she watches.

She enjoys following stories from people who promote mental health and social justice that “fill and inspire me,” said Dr. Bounds, an assistant professor at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing at the University of California, Irvine. Dr. Bounds, who is black, also likes content that makes her laugh, such as an account Black people and pets on Instagram.

At the same time, she avoids videos circulating on the Internet of police shooting unarmed people, which can be traumatic, she said. And with all the trolls and bad actors online, she said, “I have no problem unfollowing, muting, and blocking people I don’t want in my threads.”

“It’s really about choosing your own experience and not leaving it entirely to these algorithms, because those algorithms don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind,” Dr. Bounds said. “You are your best protector.”

Your social media use may be excessive if it interferes with other activities such as going outside, exercising, talking to family and friends and, perhaps most importantly, sleeping, said Jacqueline Nesi, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

Dr. Nesi recommended a more “mindful” approach, which is to “take a step back and think about what I see.” If the content makes you feel bad, she said, just unfollow or ban the account.

Being aware of how we use social media is challenging, Dr Nesi said, as some apps are designed to be used mindlessly so people can browse an endless stream of videos and targeted content – selling clothing, makeup and wellness products – seem to feed our desires .

When people reach for their phones, it can be helpful to be “curious” and ask “what made me do this?” said Nina Vasan, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.

“Am I looking for a relationship because I’m single?” Dr. Vasan said in an email. “Or maybe I want to distract from a difficult feeling?”

She suggested asking yourself, “What do I need right now and could I meet that need without using social media?”

After people consider why they are taking their calls, they should unfollow accounts that cause them anxiety and depression or lower their self-esteem, said Dr. Vasan.

At the same time, they should follow more accounts that make them feel good, lift their spirits and make them laugh. Perhaps they feature cooking videos with simple steps and ingredients, or soothing pool cleaning clips that have amassed millions of views on TikTok.

“Think of these activities as spring cleaning,” Dr. Vasan said. “You can do it today, and then you should periodically repeat these behaviors as perhaps new things come up in the news or in your life that trigger you,” or as your passions change.

Dr. Nesi recommended that people charge their phones outside the bedroom at night, don’t use them in the hour before bedtime, and generally designate tech-free times of the day when they put their phones out of reach. Dr. Murthy suggested that family meals be device-free.

Experts have also recommended that people turn off notifications that ping them when an account they follow updates. They can also remove social media apps from their phones and only use them on desktops or laptops. This can reduce your chances of getting a severe case of FOMO.

Dr Bounds said she removed Facebook and Instagram from her phone after her son, who is 20, deleted Instagram from his phone. It helped her cut down on the amount of time she was wasting online. “I did it when I was writing grants,” she said. “It was a tactic I had to focus on.”

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