Social media can bring out your ugly side — but you don’t have to let it. Here, 10 tips for lessening its negative impact on your life
By Jessica Malek
Anyone who has found themselves in a heated argument on Facebook, blocked someone on Twitter, took a deep dive into their ex’s Instagram profile or lost hours mindlessly scrolling TikTok knows social media can bring out the ugly in us all. And it’s only becoming more ingrained in our lives: Some 46% of women and 41%of men say they’ve spent more time on social media during the pandemic, according to a GlobalWebIndex survey, and I’d expect to see an even bigger spike around the holidays, especially with online shopping becoming a more seamless experience on social platforms.
And while social media has its positives — connecting with friends and family, promoting important social causes, celebrating accomplishments — they don’t outweigh the serious problems that lurk within. From self-image distortion that’s so bad plastic surgeons have coined the term “Snapchat Dysmorphia,” to the rapid spread of disinformation that makes it difficult to discern what’s real and what’s fake, we’re becoming more and more aware of the negative impacts social media is having on society and our own psyches.
Today, nearly 79% of the U.S. population uses some form of social media, 90% of teens have a social media account of some kind, and the average person spends 2 hours and 24 minutes per day on social media. That’s almost 16 hours a week — basically a part-time job. If we’re collectively spending this much time on technology that is ever-changing and a huge part of our daily life, we should know how it works and what it’s doing to us, right?
The recently released Netflix documentaries, “The Great Hack” and “The Social Dilemma,” are shedding light on the dangerous impact of this accelerated technology. While The Great Hack focuses on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and social media’s impact on democracy, The Social Dilemma centers on how social media is designed to affect us as individuals. Through interviews with some of the pioneers and early employees of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google, and more, “The Social Dilemma” explores how good-willed technological advancement has evolved and spiraled into algorithms that shape behavior and create individual realities that are having a real impact on our society.
Still, despite its negatives, we all know social media is not going anywhere. We also can’t rely on lawmakers to regulate an industry that many don’t fully understand, and the companies themselves won’t self-regulate since social media’s currency — our data — has proved to be one of the most lucrative businesses the world has ever seen. It’s been said that our data is now more valuable than oil, but the real value is in the psychological impact that algorithms are having on our actual behavior.
How do I know this is true? As a freelance social media consultant, it’s my job to help businesses and brands put their best face forward in the digital space…but it’s also my job to make you buy a product, click a link, watch a video, or donate to a cause. I operate in what’s called Persuasive Technology. My colleagues and I try and come up with “thumb-stopping content” and different ways of “hacking the platform” to create content that will steal your attention away from your niece’s first birthday photos to click an ad before you can even realize you’ve been sucked in.
I’ve had a career in social media since 2012, working with startups to globally known brands across industries including automotive, retail, hospitality, and nonprofits. I’ve also been a Facebook user since 2006. All of this to say is, I’ve seen its evolution. And now, I believe it’s my moral obligation and ethical responsibility to educate people on the importance of setting social media boundaries, how to discern misleading news and information from reality, and how to protect yourself from the mental stress and addiction social media has been proven to cause.
Here are 10 simple tips that can help you set boundaries on social media and lessen the negative impact it has on your life:
1. Turn off notifications
Social media apps are designed to keep you in the app as often as possible since more active users equal more ad revenue for social platforms. By turning off notifications, the impulse to check the app whenever you get a notification will be eliminated.
2. Move (or remove) social media apps
How many times have you gone to respond to a text or check the weather and somehow ended up on Instagram? For many, these actions are mindless and automatic. By moving social media apps from the home screen on your phone into a folder or a page or two back, you’re less likely to perform those automatic actions. The more physical steps it takes you to enter the app, the less likely you will be to check it.
Another tip: Removing social media apps from your phone altogether is ideal, but simply removing them on weekends, or one day a week, can drastically decrease usage.
3. Track and limit screen time
Being aware of your social media usage can help give some perspective into how much time it actually sucks up. There are numerous apps you can download that can help you track and manage your screen time, but setting up to three 15-minute increments of designated social media time throughout the day can help you feel connected but also in control.
Creating “phone-free zones” — i.e. a set time when you put your phone away — is another way to control usage.
4. Steer clear of “fake news”
41% of people say they use social media to stay updated on news and current events. This isn’t what these platforms were built for. If you want news, go directly to news websites or apps and try to have a healthy mix of reliable, verified voices and sources from different perspectives to break the echo chamber of the same voices and opinions that the algorithm creates.
While the algorithms can suggest what you look at, only you have the power to engage. Try not to click on inflammatory or “outrageous” headlines – they are designed to produce that emotional reaction and get you to click. “Fake news” and conspiracies are very lucrative for these platforms because it’s frankly more interesting than real news is most of the time, and it flourishes in these unregulated digital spaces. Unfollow and un-like outrage-producing groups and voices. No matter what side of the political spectrum you are on, we do not want to encourage greater division by supporting click-bait content.
5. Skip suggested content
When you engage with anything (an ad, suggested content, etc.) the algorithm thinks, “Hey, they like this! Let’s show more!” thus creating an echo chamber of the same content, opinions, images, etc. To combat this, try not to click too much on ads or “suggested” content. Yes — it’s tailor-made to be interesting to you, however by engaging in these automatic functions the algorithm gets better at its manipulation.
6. Check your self-worth often
Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I repeat this to myself often. If you find your mood and self-perception are being shaped by what you see on social media, then it’s time for a break. If you view yourself through a filter too many times, you’re going to start feeling bad when you look in the mirror. If you are only interacting with accounts promoting conspicuous consumption, you’re going to feel like your own life isn’t adding up. When you catch yourself doing these things, take a couple days off and get back to actual reality.
7. Trade YouTube for a video alternative
Kids love YouTube, but it’s come under fire for being one of the most dangerous and toxic places for young people to consume media. As an alternative, use Netflix or Hulu on mobile phones. Amazon Prime, too, offers free kids’ videos. Or get creative and make your own videos!
8. Make your bedroom a phone-free zone
Charging your phone at night away from your bed is a very small step you can take to improve your sleep quality and curb screen addiction. Use an actual alarm clock and avoid looking at your phone at least two hours before bed, and at least an hour after you wake up.
9. Consider alternatives to Google
Your Google search results are tailored to your internet activity (in other words, two people Googling the same thing could get different results). We also often joke about Google listening to us…and it is. Instead, use alternatives like DuckDuckGo, Gibiru, or StartPage, which promote privacy.
10. Be compassionate — and protect yourself
Rather than arguing with strangers on the internet, I always recommend that real discourse should happen face to face — still, if you happen to get into an online war of words with a stranger, remember that there’s another human being on the other side. If you really want to “talk” to someone, try asking genuine questions about their views with the intent to understand. If you cannot do that, or if the person isn’t showing you the same respect, don’t poison yourself with negativity. Log off and enjoy the real world with people you actually know and love.
Jessica Malek is the co-owner of the creative services business Mercenary, and works as a freelance social strategist and content creator. She lives with her husband and dog in Ferndale.