Maybe it’s the happy couple with their toes in the sand on their Greek beach vacation. Or that family that always seems to hike together, and no one ever complains about how long it takes in the hot sun and back to the car. Maybe it’s even the perfect meal, cooked with care on a busy weeknight.
These images of contentment and positivity can easily make some people who see them on Instagram, TikTok or Facebook feel as if everyone else is enjoying life more fully.
Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, warned this week that while social media may be beneficial for some, there is evidence that it may pose a “serious 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, some more philosophical — to engage in healthier ways on social media and limit harm.
Pay attention to what makes you feel bad.
Dawn Bounds – a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, is American Psychological Association Advisory Board On social media and teenage mental health — she says she’s being intentional about which accounts she follows and which videos she watches.
Bounds, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Sue and Bill Gross School of Nursing at the University of California, Irvine, said she loves the coverage of people who promote mental health and social justice, which “energizes me and motivates me.” As Black Dr. Bounds of Dr. Bounds also likes content that makes her laugh, like the account blacks and pets on Instagram.
At the same time, she avoided circulating online videos of police shooting unarmed people, which could be traumatic, she said. With all the trolls and bad actors out there, she says, “I can unfollow, mute and block people I don’t want to be in my thread with little effort.”
“It’s really about curating the experience for yourself, rather than leaving it entirely to these algorithms, which don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind,” Dr. Bounds said. “You are your best protector.”
Think about why, and whether it affects the rest of your life.
Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, said that if social media use gets in the way of other activities, such as going out, exercising, talking to family and friends, and perhaps most importantly, sleeping, Then you might be overusing social media university.
Dr. Nesi recommends a more “mindful” approach of “stepping back and thinking about what I’m seeing.” If the content makes you feel bad, she said, just unfollow or block the account.
Being mindful of the way we use social media is a challenge, says Dr. Nesi, because some apps are designed to be used mindlessly, making people scroll through endless video streams and targeted content — selling clothing, cosmetics and health products — — which seems to satisfy our desires.
When people reach for their phone, it can be helpful to show “curiosity” and ask “what caused me to do that?” Nina Vasan, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
“Am I looking for connection because I’m lonely?” Dr. Vasan said in an email. “Or am I trying to distract myself from a difficult feeling?”
She suggests asking yourself: “What do I need right now, and can I meet that need without resorting to social media?”
Try social media spring cleaning.
After people assess their reasons for picking up their phones, they should unfollow accounts that make them feel anxious and depressed or lower their self-esteem, Dr. Vasan said.
At the same time, pay more attention to accounts that make you feel comfortable, happy, and laugh. Maybe those cooking videos featuring simple steps and ingredients or soothing clips of cleaning a pool get millions of views on TikTok.
“Think of these actions as spring cleaning,” Dr. Vasan said. “You can do it today, and then you should repeat these behaviors on a regular basis because news or new things in life may trigger you,” or when your passions change.
Consider time boundaries and limit notices.
Dr. Nesi recommends that people charge their phones at night outside the bedroom, not use it an hour before bed, and generally set tech-free times of the day to times when phones are out of reach. Dr. Murthy recommends staying away from electronic devices during family mealtimes.
Experts also advise people to turn off notifications that ping them when accounts they follow are updated. They can also delete social media apps from their phones and only use them on their desktop or laptop. This reduces the chances of falling over from a bad case of FOMO.
Dr. Bounds said she deleted Facebook and Instagram from her phone after her 20-year-old son deleted Instagram from his phone. This has helped her waste less time online. “I do this when I write grant applications,” she said. “It’s a strategy I need to focus on.”