The COVID-19 global pandemic has limited our in-person social interactions and left us scrolling through endless newsfeeds — according to recent data reports, we’re using social media more than ever. Facebook use, for example, increased by 27% since the first February 29, the date of the first reported coronavirus death in the U.S. Other apps like Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, and Tiktok are experiencing huge upticks in engagement — the lockdown might keep us physically separated but we’re making up for it online.
The double bind of social media is that, by design, it stirs up both positive and negative feelings. We get a warm glow when someone likes our latest post, but we feel inadequate when someone else shares their workout routine, perfect loaf of sourdough bread, or beautiful work-from-home space. We start to monitor who engages with us and who doesn’t, which sends us into an insecure attachment spiral. Perhaps worst of all, feelings of anxiety and depression are heightened by consuming coronavirus-related news that’s poor in quality or excessive in quantity.
This is why we might want to take the good and leave the bad. For many of us, this requires monitoring our use, curating our feeds, and finding other activities that fulfill our need for social support. It’s in our best interest to make sure that social media is used as a tool and not a way to repress our feelings. As we navigate these uncertain times — with the coronavirus still raging and protests in the streets over the disproportionate killings of Black people — this can be especially hard. It’s important to give ourselves a break if we do need social media as a coping mechanism or necessary news source from time to time. However, by taking small steps towards healthier behaviours, we may find that we don’t need the apps quite so much, or can at least have a more positive relationship with them.
Limit the Time You Spend on Social Media
We know this one, and we also know that it’s easier said than done. It may also be that you don’t fully realize how much time you’re spending on social media. You feel bored, open up your app, and next thing you know an hour has gone by. How did that happen? Again, by design — technology companies spend huge sums to make sure their apps are easy to use, engaging, and most of all, sticky — from their perspective, the more time you spend on the app the better.
These moments of “social media amnesia,” however, usually indicate that we’re using our phone or computer to numb emotions. Watching TV for long periods of time or even over-exercising can also be numbing activities.
Although it’s relaxing to turn off your brain and “not think” in the short-term, you’re probably causing larger problems in the long-term. Our brains need time to process and adjust to what’s going on. If we don’t give ourselves these quiet moments of contemplation, we miss out on an opportunity to grow from our experiences. Furthermore, unprocessed thoughts and feelings can pop out in unexpected ways — an outburst of rage, inability to sleep, or maybe a sense of discomfort that you can’t shake.
A study on social media exposure and COVID-19 found that people using apps for over two hours experienced higher rates of anxiety and depression than those who limited their use. If you suspect that you’re using social media to numb feelings, or that it’s contributing to a bad mood, put your phone down and take a break.
Look out the window — i.e.,“nature’s newsfeed” — and breathe mindfully. Just sit, feel, and notice what feelings arise. This is an exercise that can be useful with a therapist or via guided meditation. By connecting to yourself on a deeper level, you can figure out what you need to improve your state of mind.
Our Input Affects Our Output
It can also be a good idea to bring mindfulness into your world of social media. Think of it as your bedroom — would you want something on the wall that makes you feel upset, annoyed, or not good enough? As you scroll through your feed, pay attention to your feelings. If an account or post triggers an unhelpful feeling, hit the “unfollow” or “mute” buttons. Don’t put someone else’s feelings in front of your own. You can still like someone in real life but prefer not to see their content. You don’t owe anyone anything, not even your “likes.”
When it comes to news outlets, or anyone posting news-related coronavirus content, be wary of the quality and quantity. If you’re feeling anxious about the future, or confused about what’s going on, there’s a tendency to over-engage with the news. It’s generally not helpful if the information is incorrect or coming at you from every angle. These days, the news can often fit both of those categories. Stick to government updates, pick a few reliable sources, and refrain from checking the news more than twice a day. Your second cousin might think they’re being helpful by sharing information, but if it’s really important, the official channels will let you know.
Find Other Ways to Connect With Others
Many of social media’s negative qualities come from passive consumption. This means we’re not really engaging with others, instead we’re just looking at them through the little window of a screen. Shifting to more active forms of telecommunication (e.g. Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, a good old fashioned phone call) can offer a much-needed dose of social support without the downside of a newsfeed. Start a conversation one-on-one and try to limit the amount of time you talk about coronavirus. It might seem silly, but a game of, “What would you bring to a desert island,” or, “Which would you rather,” can foster deep connections while keeping things light.
It can also be an option to visit people IRL while wearing masks and remaining socially distant (i.e. six feet apart). A porch visit, sitting in a backyard, or even waving from a balcony can generate some feel-good moments. If you’re less comfortable with this, consider staying even further apart.
Coronavirus will likely be part of our lives for a while and we need to make sure our social media engagement doesn’t make our mental health worse. By limiting and controlling our intake, while seeking more active forms of connection, we can lift our mood instead of our follower count.