3 Guidelines I Use to Stay Sane on Social Media

Read this author's guidelines for a better relationship between social media and mental health.

I’m on social media a lot. And I mean, a lot. It’s my primary mode of communication with family and friends, among other shared experiences, and it also happens to be my job. So from 9-to-5 — and before and after, as well — I’m “on.”

It can be easy to lose myself this way, to get so caught up in what’s happening online. To always want to be the first to comment, find the most clever response, the best gif. I can catch myself feeling like I need to know what’s happening online — or like I’m not part of a conference or an event if I’m not tweeting about it.

And this distraction can take a toll on my relationships. In addition to keeping me from being fully present, I use my phone as a defense mechanism — hiding behind communication apps so I can perfectly think through my response and avoid exposing myself to the vulnerability of real, true, deep conversations. Not to mention that I’m blocking off communication with others any time I walk around glued to my phone.

And what’s even worse, when I’m constantly connected to everyone I know via social media, I tend to feel less gracious, less loving, and less like I’m building relationships. It can become easy to fall into jealousy, anger, old grudges, and just plain judging other people. It’s when I fall into this cycle that I know something’s got to give.

Now, I’m no expert in keeping a healthy distance from social media by far. I’m not going to give up Facebook for Lent (among other things, I’m pretty sure my job would take issue with that), and I’m certainly still struggling with the pull to pick up my phone at each turn. But I’ve discovered a few simple rules that work for me — and keep me from losing my mind online.

Rule #1: Pay attention

Realizing that social media is a blessing and a curse and monitoring my mood when I’m on it has helped me realize the ways in which I can regulate my mood and my happiness while using the apps for what I intend — staying connected with friends and community. So, I commit to paying attention — to realizing when I’m just getting annoyed and angry at every post —and intentionally stepping away to do something more productive when my mood’s gone sour. This self-awareness has also helped me figure out my “triggers” for getting pulled into an argument or a foul mood.

Rule #2: Just make rules

After figuring out some of the triggers that tend to push my mood one way or another, the most important step for me was just to make rules, period. I’m figuring out still what those rules need to look like, and I know they’re different for everyone.

For me, I know that starting my day on social media — especially on a work day — is going to end with me getting out of bed too late, too grumpy, and not in a positive place to start my day. So a few years back, I made a rule: no getting on my phone until I’ve gotten out of bed and said morning prayer.

Now, of course some days I do just slouch back to bed right after prayer and get on my phone. And waiting a little bit to set my priorities straight isn’t enough on its own to magically fix my mood or make my mornings perfect. But it’s a step in the right direction — a subtle reminder to myself to reorder my priorities.

These boundaries are, I think, the most important way we can remind ourselves that we are in control of our social media use — not the other way around. And it doesn’t matter so much what the boundaries are, just that we have them. For me, it’s focused on the morning. For my husband, it’s setting screen time boundaries on his apps so they can’t be accessed from the time he goes to bed until 8:00 the next morning. For you, it might be logging on twice a day. The important thing is making an intentional decision.

Rule #3: Love each other — just maybe don’t follow each other

I’ve also found that there are certain people who I just cannot follow on Facebook. Whether it’s a Facebook page, a friend, an acquaintance, I have deliberately placed myself in situations where there’s no chance of being charitable. Maybe it’s their ceaseless posting of memes, their unfunny posts, their not-so-humble humblebrags, or their posts that I fundamentally disagree with on a moral level.

It’s tempting to find myself following these people in spite of this temptation — justifying it by saying I want to keep up with their lives, or saying that I should keep them on my timeline so I can build a better relationship with them. But the truth of the matter is that I’m justifying my desire and ability to easily judge other people and let hate build up in my heart. And that’s not helping either of us.

I tested this a few months back by “snoozing” a person or group anytime their content spurred me toward anger or judgment. This function works for 30 days on Facebook, giving a bit of a test drive to see what your timeline might look like without that content.

And the funny thing is, about a month later, I woke up and found myself getting grumpier than normal on Facebook. Why? Because my snoozes had finished. So I intentionally found ways to snooze or unfollow certain pages or kinds of content. And I can reevaluate those snoozes as time goes on. Rather than simply blocking people from my life or unfollowing and forgetting, I can remake this conscious choice each month.

It’s not about blocking people from my life or ignoring ideas that are different from mine. On the contrary, it’s saving those discussions and those people for a space where nuance exists, where we can have heartfelt and vulnerable conversations, where we aren’t speaking too quickly and jumping to assumptions. And it’s about controlling what I allow myself to see and to react to.

This has been one of the most fruitful changes I’ve made on social media. I used to think that being kind and building full relationships meant following certain people, but the truth is that when following someone out of guilt is making you less kind, you’re defeating your own purpose. And letting go of expectations for how many followers I have or for friendships and relationships I’m desperate to control or craft has freed me to be more joyful — to cultivate more authentic relationships on- and off-line.

And quite simply, it’s kept me sane.
Grotto quote graphic about social media and mental health: "Boundaries are the most important way we can remind ourselvesw that we are in control of our social media use."

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