The evils of social media are well documented. It can be addictive, damaging, and toxic. Watching the highlights of other people’s lives and chasing the validation of likes and comments can destroy your self-esteem and steal hours of your day. After experiencing these negative effects, many people opt to abandon their social media accounts entirely.
However, social media can be a way to connect, especially for older people, those in rural areas, people with disabilities, or people who can’t find others with similar interests nearby. With the right approach, social media can be a positive and productive experience that fosters a sense of community.
Social media can enhance your life, but it takes work to avoid common social media traps. Here are five ways to make social media a positive force in your life.
1. Set Your Intentions
Before making any changes to your social media habits, take some time to think about why you use Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or whichever platform is your preference.
I have three reasons for using social media. I want to:
- Stay connected with far-away friends and family.
- Build an audience for my writing.
- Learn about ideas and people I might not encounter offline.
If someone — or something — in my feed is bothering me and it’s not related to one of these goals, I hide, mute, or un-follow that person or account.
I’ll admit, I do follow some accounts that don’t fit into those three categories. We added a Boston Terrier to our family this year, so now I follow an Instagram account that’s simply photos of Boston Terriers. This doesn’t connect me with friends, it doesn’t help my career, I’m not learning anything, but it does make me happy. That’s important, too.
2. Let Go of the Negative
Once you’ve identified the reasons you use social media, it’s time to clean up your feed. To do this effectively you’ll need to cultivate an awareness of your reactions.
Just like in meditation when you focus on your breathing, spend some time observing your reactions to your social media feed. If that former co-worker’s humble brags make you crazy, let that person go. If a high school acquaintance posts nothing but political rants, give yourself permission to hide, un-follow, or un-friend that person.
Cleaning up your social media circle becomes more difficult with people who are meaningful to you or important in your life, but who have a social media presence you find upsetting or irritating. If there’s someone in your feed you can’t jettison, you’ll have to work on managing your reaction to this person:
- First, think about why this person is upsetting to you. Are they succeeding in an area where you’re struggling? If that’s the case, take time to recognize your own strengths.
- Then, think about what small, concrete steps you could take toward reaching the goal your friend achieved. Put your energy toward achieving that goal instead of worrying about what your friend is sharing on social media.
3. Connect with Your Friends in Person
With so much of our lives shared online it’s easy to forget to pick up the phone or make plans with friends “IRL” (in real life). Don’t let the connection you feel through social media take the place of frequent and regular in-person interactions.
When you talk with your friend over dinner or on the phone you learn about everything your friend has left out of the social media feed, and in turn you can share the things that are too personal for you reveal online. The person whose life looks shiny and perfect on Instagram may be struggling with some of the same issues as you, but you’ll never know if you don’t reach out.
4. Schedule or Limit Social Media Time
Even a well-edited social media feed can be a waste of time and an unnecessary distraction. If you find yourself getting sucked into Facebook and Instagram when you should be working or paying attention to those around you, limit your social media access.
Some people like to schedule in their social media, telling themselves they can only go on for an hour each day. I like to take the opposite approach and declare social media off-limits at certain times during the day. We don’t allow phones at the table during dinner and I charge my phone outside of my bedroom at night. I also make an effort to stop checking social media about an hour before bedtime.
My biggest challenge is avoiding social media when I’m working at my computer. If I find I’m procrastinating too much or having trouble resisting the lure of the feed, I activate the Freedom app installed on my computer. This blocks any site I choose for any amount of time, which forces me to focus on the task at hand.
5. Stop Lurking and Engage
Even if you don’t clean up your friend list or set limits on your social media time, an easy way to make social media a positive force in your life is to engage instead of lurk. Researchers have found that people who comment and connect with friends are happier on social media than people who scroll without commenting.
Of course, not all commenting is created equal. Arguing with people or getting into fights with strangers is not a good way to engage. Stay positive and supportive, and don’t make a comment online you wouldn’t say to that person’s face.
If you’re in a Facebook group, get involved. Share your own struggles and successes and support the ups and downs of others. Real communities can be formed online, but just like in real life, being part of a community is a two-way street.
What Role Does Social Media Play for You?
Some people naturally fall into a healthy online life that mirrors the way they live offline, but if social media is having a negative impact on your happiness, try some of these strategies for managing your social media.
The Whole Life Challenge often includes a Well-Being Practice to work on things like limiting social media and computer time, giving you the structure to develop habits that help give you a healthy mind along with a healthy body. Because, deep down, we all know health involves a lot more than the physical. So give your social media a “check up” and make sure it’s contributing to a happy, healthy lifestyle.