Social media can be an enjoyable pastime, and serve our mental wellbeing in several ways. It can enhance our sense of connection to others, especially if we don’t live near those we know or if we are unable to go out to socialize as often as we’d like due to work or health issues. Social media can provide a distraction from boredom or the stress of daily life. It also offers fun in the form of memes, bonding in the form of posts or tweets by likeminded friends, ideas such as various “life hacks” or recipes, and it can be a source for community news, like product recalls or lost pets.
Yet there can be a flip side to these benefits, one that can trigger anxious, depressive thoughts, a lowered sense of wellbeing, and leave you in a state of distress, rather than destress.
Here are five major sources of social media stress and a few ideas on how to manage them:
Political Posts: There’s a lot to be said for reading material in order to stay informed on topics that have an impact on your voting decisions. There’s also something to be said for engaging in adult discussions on these topics in an effort to either learn more yourself, or to spread information to or correct misinformation for , those in our social circles. Yet, these reasons are seldom at the root of politically charged interactions that take place online. Maybe it’s the impulsive nature, or the faceless nature or internet posting, or maybe it’s a sign of the times, but often online interactions are far less courteous and thoughtful than they would be in person. Or maybe nothing has changed. There used to be a common rule of etiquette banning the casual discussion of religion and politics in social situations, and perhaps we are seeing why. Many people just can’t seem to do so within the constraints of information sharing, listening, and disagreeing with maturity. I understand, it can be very difficult if you feel very passionate about your cause. Yet that same passion can lead to frustration, anger, stress, fractured relationships, and lost sleep over why your cousin’s friend is so bullheaded. There are several ways to approach this, depending on what is right for you. You could shut down all political discussion on your feed altogether, and reserve social media for nonpolitical socialization. This doesn’t mean you give up on politics; you can just choose to involve yourself with politics through other sources. Alternatively, you could decide to support likeminded friends’ posts or tweets, but leave the posting and tweeting to them. Another approach is to continue to engage in political posting and commenting, but to continue to remind yourself of a few basic rules or boundaries (even if others aren’t). These rules of engagement can help prevent or reduce negative interactions, which will in turn reduce stress. The topic of healthy arguing is a heady one, and deserves its own article, so I plan to write a follow up article on this topic alone. But briefly, think about these rules when engaging in a heated discussion online:
1. What is my goal in this conversation? Are you seeking information? Venting? Trying to inform?
2. Stick to facts. Avoid name calling and personal attacks. But keep in mind, people with opposing viewpoints may break your own rules and call names, etc.
3. You are unlikely to change anyone’s mind. Debating with other political enthusiasts is not usually very useful, as many people already have their minds made up.
4. At some point agree to disagree and leave a person like this to their values and beliefs. There are times when it is better to walk away and retain a sense of peace, rather try to come away feeling right.
Trigger Posts: These are posts that purposely have heart wrenching pictures connected to them, and can pop up on your feed unexpectedly. Usually a picture of a terribly abused or neglected pet or child, or perhaps a sick or handicapped child. There’s often an accompanying plea for a prayer or simply a “like” or “share” to just show support. What’s important to know about these posts is that often , the pictures are actually stolen and used to obtain traffic for social media pages, because they tug on our heartstrings and get a lot of exposure. See this article to read about one mom’s experience with her daughter’s stolen picture. One thing you can do is to spread the word to your social media contacts about this type of scam. Additionally, you can post about what kinds of pictures you find upsetting and kindly request that those you follow don’t circulate those types of pictures. Sometimes you might notice the posts coming from certain sources, whether from a friend or when they’re posted, they seem to come from a page you don’t follow, but you notice the same page name on multiple posts. You can “unfollow” a friend without removing them from your friend list. To hide a certain page on Facebook that seems to post a lot of these things, click the downward facing arrow at the top right of a post, then scroll down to “Hide all from _____” and you will see the name of the page there. Doing so will block all content from that page on your newsfeed. When these images do appear on your page, resist the urge to read the story attached to it. Realize that the story may even be made up by someone who stole the picture and have nothing to do with the actual person or animal in the photo. Scroll by and move on to the next item. Additionally, you can join or follow groups and pages that show uplifting stories, full of hope and good deeds. There are a few out there, if you search for them.
Reunions: Reconnecting to people from your past can fill many people with a pleasant feeling of nostalgia. Social media has been known to joyfully reunite people who have lost each other to the years. At the same time, for many people the past is best left in the past, and for some people the past includes, at best, very uncomfortable memories, and at worst, very traumatic memories. Social media, even with all the privacy settings in place, can leave a person open to being contacted by people that bring those memories flooding back. Some people choose to use pseudonyms and stringent privacy settings to avoid contact with unwanted people. However, some websites require the use of your real name, requiring either creative pseudonym use, or vigilance in quick blocking/hiding of any unwanted friend requests. Let me underscore that: it is completely up to you whether to accept a friend request or not. Some people are okay with large friend lists that include acquaintances they’ve never met, or people they knew very superficially a long time ago. Some only want their current social or familial circle with whom they have frequent contact. To each, their own. Decide what you want your social networking map to look like, and then realize that your online experience is yours. You decide with whom to interact. Additionally, it is important to regularly check your privacy settings, because social media sites can sometimes change their privacy policies and it is easy to miss these changes. If you find that uncomfortable memories or past trauma have been stirred up, talking to a professional counselor or social worker can help you find ways to cope.
Comparing to others: One drawback to social media is that we can come away from seeing everyone else’s posts or tweets with a sense that everyone else has their lives so much more together than we do. We see their smiling photos in their clean homes, serving fancy meals. Shoutouts to thoughtful spouses. Idyllic vacation photos. Some days, it’s enough to make you toss your laptop across the room. Thankfully, it may just land atop a giant pile of dirty laundry, saving it from breaking. Here, it is helpful to remember that you are comparing your blooper reel with everyone else’s highlight reel. If you still find yourself having a difficult time with this, turn off the electronics and try practicing a thankfulness exercise. Write down five to ten things you are thankful for in your life. They can be big or tiny, it doesn’t matter. Or try this as a daily exercise,writing one thing, big or small, each day for which you are thankful.
Habit distraction escape: Finally, while spending time on a social network can be a pleasant distraction, there is a point at which it can have diminishing returns. At some point, we can get habituated to pulling out the phone whenever there is downtime, and become unaccustomed to simply sitting and thinking, or sitting and just being in the moment. It can become an escape from boredom or negative interactions. This can then have a negative impact on our relationships within our families. Those negative interactions don’t get resolved completely, and end up becoming a repeated theme in later arguments. Even outside of negative interactions, time spent in the social media world versus in our immediate social real world makes us miss moments we would otherwise cherish but for our distractions. Put the phone away. Limit the screen time. Sit quietly with your thoughts; listen to your breath for five minutes. Get silly with the person next to you. Look for shapes in the clouds together.
The important thing when managing your online time is to understand what your goals are for using social media. Ask yourself, is my use of social media enhancing my life? What am I getting out of it? What do I want out of it? You may find yourself wanting to draw firmer boundaries around your use: perhaps limiting yourself to only positive, helpful posts, limiting use to certain times of day, taking periodic social media breaks, and/or taking everything you read with a large grain of proverbial salt.