For over a decade, we’ve been deeply immersed in a love affair with social media. And the thought of ending things can be painful. But like any relationship, if social media isn’t making you happy anymore — and if maintaining your online persona is exhausting instead of fun — it might be time to say goodbye.
Late last year, Meta (formerly Facebook) came under intense scrutiny after leaked documents revealed the company was fully aware of the negative impact that its products, especially Instagram, can have on the mental health of users.
Meta went straight into damage control. But it seems no one was particularly surprised by the news – not even teenage girls, whom Meta identified as most at risk. Did the leak just confirm what we already suspected: that social media has the potential to be far more harmful than helpful?
How did our once carefree relationship with social media turn sour? And perhaps most importantly, can (or should) it be recovered?
Spot the red flags
Relationship counselors often ask struggling couples to think about what made them happy in their relationship. Social media, despite all those annoying peccadilloes, has some redeeming features.
Throughout the pandemic, the ability to stay in touch with people we can’t see in person has become incredibly valuable. Social media can also help people find their tribe, especially if the people in their offline world don’t share their values and beliefs.
But if you can’t go a day without browsing the sites, feeling pressured to “like” or be “liked,” your relationship is in trouble.
Although far from settled, most research on screen time focuses on the harmful effects of excessive or problematic screen use on well-being and mental health. A 2021 meta-analysis of 55 studies, with a combined sample of 80,533 people, found a positive (albeit weak) association between depressive symptoms and social media use.
An important finding was that negative consequences were more likely to come from how the use of social media made participants to feelrather than how long they used it.
In trying to understand why social media can make us feel less than content, we can’t look past the effect of the 24/7 news flow (and fake news) on our psyches. collective.
A 2021 Deloitte survey of Australians found that 79% believed fake news was a problem, and only 18% believed information obtained through social media was trustworthy. Having to navigate content that is deliberately aimed at perpetuating fear and dissent only adds to the cognitive and emotional burden on people.
But here’s the catch. It seems that although we are generally concerned about the negative impact of technology on our well-being, this does not translate into behavioral change at the individual level.
My own research published last year found that more than two-thirds of survey participants believed excessive smartphone use could have a negative impact on well-being, but individual use was still very high, with an average of 184 minutes per day. There was no relationship between belief and behavior.
Read more: The privacy paradox: We claim we care about our data, so why don’t our actions match up?
What leads to this apparent cognitive-behavioral dissonance? The results of a long-term study by researchers at the University of Amsterdam could provide a clue. They found that living in an “always-online” world leads to less self-control over social media use and, therefore, less well-being.
In other words, we know what we are doing may be bad for us, but we do it anyway.
Simple steps you can follow
How do you know when it’s time to reassess your relationship with social media? There is a deceptively simple question to ask yourself: how do you feel?
Think about how you feel before, during, and after using social media. If you feel like you’re wasting a big chunk of your day, your week (or dare I say, your life) on social media, that’s a clue. If you are feeling negative emotions like sadness, anxiety, guilt or fear, you have your answer.
But if divorcing abruptly from social media seems too far away, what else can you do to slowly break up or potentially save the relationship?
1) Start with a trial separation
A “soft delete” allows you to see how you will feel without your social media before committing to a permanent deletion. Let your friends and family know you’re taking a break, delete apps from your devices, and set a goal of one or two weeks when you won’t be accessing the account(s). If the world is still spinning at the end of this trial, keep going! Once you no longer feel the pull of social media, you’ll be ready to hit delete.
2) Reduce the number of platforms you interact with
If you have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Reddit on your phone, tablet, and computer, then you’ve probably passed saturation point and are in drowning territory. Pick one or two apps that genuinely serve a meaningful purpose to you and ditch the rest. Gen X is struggling to say goodbye to Facebook, but Gen Z has largely bid farewell. If they can do it, so can you!
Read more: New evidence shows half of Australians have given up on social media at some point, but millennials are lagging behind
3) If steps 1 and 2 are still too long, try reducing your time spent on social networks
First, turn off all your notifications (yes all of them). If you are conditioned to respond to every “bing” notification, it will be nearly impossible for you to stop responding to them. Set aside some time each day and do all your catching up or social media browsing. Set an alarm for your pre-determined time allotment and when it rings, hang up the phone until the same time tomorrow.
None of this will be easy, and stepping away from social media might hurt at first. But if the relationship has become uncomfortable or even abusive, it’s time to take a stand. And who knows what untold happiness you might find, beyond the four walls of your screen?
Read more: Does social media make us more or less alone? Depends on how you use it