Self-care is having a moment. From bubble baths, chocolate cake, and wine, my Instagram feed is littered with #selfcaresunday posts with this kind of content. And, don’t get me wrong. Treating ourselves can be self-care. As a mental health professional, I’m excited to see individuals, especially women, focused on taking care of their emotional and mental health. But, it’s not all about indulgence. More often than not, real self-care is the hard work of intentionally removing the things that give us short term relief but create long-term negative consequences to our mental health.
Enter social media. Like many of you, I have a complicated relationship with social. On the one hand, I can keep up with friends and family I don’t see enough. I appreciate the Events tab on Facebook, which has kept me in the loop about local shows, cultural activities, farmers markets, and the like. It’s easy to post to one central location so that my friends and family can keep up with me, too. In fact, many a conversation has started with, “So I saw on Facebook (or Instagram) that you were at (fill in the blank). How was that?”
But, a lot of the time, social media leaves me feeling less-than-fulfilled. Sure, I see friends and family post vacation pictures and their kids’ best moments, but I’m not there to experience that with them. We might exchange brief, shallow pleasantries, but it’s difficult to engage in the deep, meaningful conversations that I crave. After scrolling mindlessly for an hour (or more! Some of us spend up to six hours per day on social!) I’m often left feeling guilty or unsatisfied about not using the time more productively. I feel annoyed about a post sharing inaccurate, false information. And, let’s not forget the infamous political rants that can leave me feeling demoralized about the state of our country for hours afterwards. Social media, with its benefits, can be a toxic place. In fact, 15 million Americans left Facebook this year, citing the constant stream of negative news, rants, and political posts, and stating they needed a mental health break as their reasons for jumping ship.
In addition to the toxic environment that social media can often create, there are other insidious consequences to engaging in it heavily. It contributes to a more sedentary lifestyle and decreases real-time interactions, both known to contribute to depression. More young people feel ill-equipped to engage socially because most of their interactions take place through a screen. Many people report increased anxiety due to FOMO, the Fear Of Missing Out. Never-ending notifications disrupt our work, sleep, and relationships. Upward social comparison, comparing our worst moments to other people’s best, is particularly damaging for young girls. After all, most of us are sharing our lives through filters, and it becomes easy to forget that others’ feeds are simply a highlight reel of best moments with heavy editing.
The research paints a startling picture. The more time we spend on social media, the more depressed, anxious, and lonely we feel. Maybe we don’t connect our use with those feelings. For those who suffer with mental health issues already, it might be difficult to point to an episode on social media and say that it caused our negative emotions. I’d encourage you to become vigilant about the content you’re consuming and take stock of how you feel immediately before and after being on social media. While I don’t endorse a complete departure from social media because it’s next to impossible in our culture today (though if you are interested in that approach, Cal Newport is someone worth checking out), I do encourage a mindful, deliberate approach to using social media. Here are four strategies to start with.
If you are committed to self-care, consider decreasing your social media use. It will improve your mental health more than the myriad of short-term solutions that are being marketed throughout the wellness industry. Many of us struggle to fit self-care activities in on a regular basis. By giving up social media, you are freeing up your schedule to engage in the things and with the people that really matter. And, that’s real #selfcare.