How to Protect Your Mental Health When Using Social Media

Maybe it’s a happy couple, toes in the sand, on a Grecian beach vacation. Or that family who always seem to be hiking together, no one ever complaining about the hot sun and how long it’s going to take to get back to the car. Maybe it’s even that perfect meal, expertly plated on a busy weeknight.

These images of contentment and positivity can easily leave some who see them on Instagram, TikTok or Facebook feeling as if everyone else is enjoying life more fully.

The United States surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy, warned this week that while social media can be beneficial to some people, evidence suggests that 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 that everyone can use — some practical, some more philosophical — to engage with social media in a healthier way and limit harm.

Dawn Bounds — a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner who was a member of an American Psychological Association advisory board on social media and adolescent mental health — said she was intentional about the accounts she follows and the videos she watches.

She likes to follow the accounts of people who promote mental health and social justice, which “fill me up 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 the account Black People and Pets on Instagram.

At the same time, she avoids videos that circulate online when the police shoot unarmed people, which can be traumatizing, she said. And with all of the trolls and bad actors online, she said, “I have no problem unfollowing, muting and blocking folks that I don’t want in my threads.”

“It’s really about curating the experience for yourself and not completely leaving it up to these algorithms, because these algorithms don’t necessarily have your best interests in mind,” Dr. Bounds said. “You are your best protector.”

Your social media usage might be excessive if it is getting in the way of other activities like going outside, exercising, talking to family and friends and, perhaps most important, sleeping, said Jacqueline Nesi, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University.

Dr. Nesi recommended a more “mindful” approach, which involves “taking a step back and thinking about what I’m seeing.” If the content makes you feel bad, she said, simply unfollow or block the account.

Being mindful of how we use social media is challenging, Dr. Nesi said, because some apps are designed to be used mindlessly, to keep people scrolling through an endless stream of videos and targeted content — selling clothing, makeup and wellness products — that seems to feed our desires.

When people reach for their phones, it can be helpful to get “curious” and ask “what caused me to do that?” said Nina Vasan, a 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 looking to distract myself from a difficult feeling?”

She suggested asking yourself: “What do I need in this moment, and could I meet this need without turning to social media?”

After people take stock of why they are picking up their phones, they should unfollow accounts that make them feel anxious and depressed or that lower their self-esteem, Dr. Vasan said.

At the same time, they should follow more accounts that make them feel good, improve their mood and make them laugh. Maybe those feature cooking videos with easy steps and ingredients or soothing clips of swimming pools being cleaned, which have racked up millions of views on TikTok.

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

Dr. Nesi recommended that people charge their phone outside the bedroom at night, not use it an hour before bedtime and generally set tech-free times of the day, when they put their phones out of reach. Dr. Murthy suggested that family mealtimes be free of devices.

Experts also recommended that people turn off notifications that ping them when an account they follow is updated. They can also delete social media apps from their phones and use them only on their desktop or laptop computers. That could reduce the chances of coming down with a bad case of FOMO.

Dr. Bounds said she deleted Facebook and Instagram on her phone after her son, who is 20, deleted Instagram on his phone. It helped her cut the amount of time she wasted online. “I did it when I was grant-writing,” she said. “It was a tactic I needed to focus.”

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Mohammad SHiblu

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