Redefining healthy relationships with social media

A woman lies in bed at night staring at social media on her phone.

Many people have a contentious relationship with social media. While it has numerous benefits—like helping people stay connected and spreading information—it can also become a major distraction and create a lot of stress.

Global events of the past couple of years and the growing sophistication of fake news have proven that people everywhere need to be mindful about how and when they interact with social media, even as it’s designed to keep them constantly engaged. When we consider that 77% of employees use social media at work, it becomes even more important for employers to help team members mitigate its negative impacts to promote positive mental health in the workplace.

How does social media really affect us?

Social media shows users content that is more likely to elicit a strong, emotional reaction.

As American technology ethicist Tristan Harris explains in his film, the Social Dilemma, the algorithms on YouTube, Facebook and other social media sites are “tilting the floor” to direct people to topics that keep their attention the longest—often conspiracy theories or emotionally charged content, not rational and expert-led information.

So while social media has definite benefits, Emily Weinstein, a senior researcher at Harvard University, says “online interactions can also stifle human connectivity, lower our self-esteem, make us feel lonely and isolated, and stress us out.”

For example, in a 2017 study, higher social media use in emerging adults (18-22 years old) was linked to greater symptoms of dispositional anxiety and a higher likelihood of having an anxiety disorder. Another study from 2017 concluded that young adults with high social media usage felt more socially isolated. It noted that perceived social isolation has been associated with “substantial morbidity and mortality.”

In a Canadian study from 2018, about 20% of social media users aged 15 to 64, “reported that in the previous 12 months they had lost sleep, gotten less physical activity, or had trouble concentrating on tasks or activities as a result of their social media use.” About 13% “reported feeling anxious or depressed, frustrated or angry, or envious of the lives of others.”

My own relationship with social media has changed throughout the duration of my life and career. What began as a platform for simple storytelling and life updates (yes, I used to post things like “Laura is having a bad hair day” or “Laura is eating peanut butter”) as early as the late ‘90s has become a billion dollar industry. Social media is now a behemoth of information that can feel overwhelming and unmanageable at times.

What do we do about it?

To quell the noise, I take frequent breaks away from my many screens. This not only helps me maintain my sanity but ensures I can effectively do my job.

With the volume of content, updates and notifications I get every day, I’ve learned how to separate myself from the chaos by curating my feeds to only see what’s relevant for me at my job and in my personal life. I also lean on LifeSpeak’s experts for support when I need it. They provide a deeper understanding of how social media impacts wellbeing and practical strategies to develop a healthier relationship with it.

Below, I’m providing highlights from just a few of their LifeSpeak micro-learning videos and blogs. Share these resources with your clients, coworkers or their family members to help anyone struggling to maintain a healthy, balanced relationship with social media.

Resetting your relationship with electronic devices and social media, by Dr. Reena Kotecha              

According to organizational consultant Dr. Reena Kotecha, a recent study researching loneliness in US workers found that 7 out of 10 heavy social media users reported feeling lonely, up from 53% a year prior.

Dr. Kotecha says one problem with social media is that it doesn’t show the whole reality. Rather, it only displays certain, curated parts of peoples’ lives or of other topics. Another major problem is that it limits our ability to concentrate. According to a study done by the University of California Irvine, it takes a person 23 minutes to get back to the deep focus they had on a task once they’ve been distracted. Over time, this can significantly impact productivity. Now, some simple tweaks may help here.

To mitigate these problem, Dr. Kotecha recommends setting time limits on social media platforms. Phones often have settings that will prevent further social media access after the allotted time has been reached. She also says switching off notifications, closing background tabs, and unsubscribing from redundant email lists can help as well.

Loneliness and social media, by Dr. Nik Grujich

“Social media can work in two ways,” psychiatrist Dr. Nik Grujich says, “it can help or hinder our loneliness. It’s really about the nature of our engagement with the platform.”

For example, Grujich says mindless scrolling might feel more alienating, while connecting with a niche community to have authentic and rich discussions might impart positive feelings. He says technology has helped many people manage loneliness—keeping them connected to others who they can’t see in person for a variety of reasons from distance to mobility issues. Grujich says it’s important to monitor social media interactions to insure they don’t become superficial and therefore lead to loneliness.

“It’s not about technology being good or bad,” Grujich says.

Rather, it’s about being mindful in how technology is used to ensure it’s reducing loneliness rather than fueling it.

Technology use: how to find a balance, by speaker Cam Adair

So how do you achieve balance in your technology use?

“It’s not about vilifying tech,” speaker Cam Adair says, reaffirming Grujich’s message. “It’s about your own relationship to it, and your own relationship is going to be dependent on your goals and values, and the vision that you have for your life.”

He says it’s good to start by defining balance. Balance is an ebb and flow, not a set structure or a 50-50 split. Then, Adair says people should identify any problematic use that they have. Problems with technology and social media use vary from person to person. Maybe it’s a specific website, or app or social network for one person but not for another. Once a person has identified their problem area, they can set boundaries around its use.

From there, Adair says it’s good for people to be mindful of why they use a social network or piece of technology.  Are they seeking fulfillment? A sense of connection? Is it about a sense of escape? Or something else entirely?

Once a person identifies what that reason is, it’s easier to find a healthier balance with technology.

Recognizing fake news, by Fyscillia Ream

Fake news has become a buzzword over the past couple years. But according to Fyscillia Ream, Co-executive director of Smart Cybersecurity Network, fake news isn’t a new phenomenon. It includes fabricated or just misleading data, and it’s been around for a long time despite coming to the forefront of public discussion recently.

There are many problems with fake news—some obvious and some subtle. One of the less obvious issues is it can cause people to feel disaffected, confused about who to trust and suspicious of other people or institutions. It can contribute to stress or feelings of isolation and because it’s so common on social media it can exacerbate the issues some people already encounter on those platforms.

Ream says fake news articles often feature sensationalist headlines that ensnare people by aligning with their political or personal views. She says critical thinking is one of our best tools against fake news and proposes three tips to help improve anyone’s critical thinking skills.

  1. Take all information with a grain of salt. Try to be aware of any biases in what you’re reading.
  2. Be mindful of your own biases including political views, religious views, even things like food preferences.
  3. Don’t limit yourself to that source—read other sources to see who corroborates or disproves what you read.

Want to learn more about managing social media stress?

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