Digital Health: A Beginner’s Guide to Healthy Social Media Habits
The longer time went on, the more of a drag being on my phone was. Notifications started giving me anxiety.
This is a two-part series. Here’s the 2nd part!
When I was working in a previous social media role, there was an unspoken expectation that I would be on my phone on a regular basis. Really, a job that WANTS you to be on your phone.
As the first point of digital contact for students, accessibility was paramount: there was an unspoken expectation that I would respond within the hour. This meant I was within arms reach of my phone, ready for any buzz or ping that happened.
Being constantly attached to my phone, like it was part of my hand, was odd. Fun at first: I could scroll away on my apps as often as I wanted. I‘d respond to notifications when I got them, and then go do whatever else I needed to do.
But the longer time went on, the more of a drag being on my phone was. Notifications started giving me anxiety.
I got nervous opening up my emails. When I would get home, I’d toss my phone to the other side of the room and binge-watch Netflix. Hearing it vibrate would send me into fight or flight mode.
I knew the warning signs of social media addiction: anxiety around notifications, hating my experiences on apps yet never seeming to be able to close them.
Yet, I continued to glue myself to my phone, because I thought my job (and my life) required it. This only got worse with the constant need to speak to friends on messenger, IG DM’s, Facebook tags, etc. I can’t miss out on a trend. I’d be shunned for it.
It wasn’t until I finished my role that I realized I needed a break. So I announced my departure and deleted most of my social media (kept Facebook messenger). It was a great three months of peace and quiet. Eventually, I downloaded a few apps back, with more restrictions in place.
Going from full social media usage to pretty much zero, then back to a restricted amount of use, has given me an interesting look into how dependent we are on social media.
Now, we don’t all have the ability to say goodbye to every app: some of us manage social platforms for work, some to promote side projects, some to genuinely connect with friends and family around the globe.
So how do you balance social media while gaining your sanity back? How do you develop healthier social media habits, ones that make sure you’re not being sucked into the rabbit hole of constant scrolling?
The good news is that there is a path forward. It will take time, but if we chip away bit by bit, adding in small changes here and there, I believe we can regain our power over social and start living mentally healthier lives.
Before we jump in, I want to stress this: the following is by no means the end-all-be-all of regaining your mental health around social media. It’s just the start. I’m sure you’ve tried, or know about, much more effective strategies.
That’s good! Everything below is about the beginning. I encourage you to share your methods to reduce your social media dependency. I’ll be writing more ideas in the future.
Now put that phone on silent and let’s go!
1. Turn off notifications
The first tactic I use that has been a gamechanger for me in the last two years is simple: turn your notifications off. With notifications on, we’re responsive to every message, comment, or like we get. But it doesn’t have to be like that. We can direct our messages to specific areas we can manage better, creating a filter to separate time-sensitive information and information that isn’t urgent in any way.
The way I do this is to keep only two notifications on: texts and phone calls.
It may be different for you (I know WhatsApp is popular for families communicating globally), so ask yourself this: “if there’s an emergency, what are the best ways to reach me?”
Let that guide what you pick.
This narrows your list down to maybe 1 to 3 MAX. From here, you can start making small changes over time, muting apps and telling friends & family to contact you via (insert preferred method here) if it’s time-sensitive.
Since doing this, I’ve noticed I feel a lot better. I can check my apps when I want to, and respond quickly when there’s a time-sensitive issue at hand.
It doesn’t solve every problem, but for those among us who are glued to our phones, removing notifications is a good first step.
2. Curate your timeline
None of us truly know how algorithms work, but there is one common agreement: they show us what we’re likely to engage with. Over time, as you like, comment, and follow, the algorithm slowly shapes suggestions similar to what you engage with.
You can use this to your advantage by intentionally following positive accounts and creators. Anyone who benefits you. Educational creators, entertainers, dog accounts, you name it. Your timeline is yours, and you can be proactive in cultivating one that serves you best.
Each platform manages its timeline differently, so adjust your strategy based on what works for each. For example, Instagram allows you to mute posts & stories from people. Twitter doesn’t. So, with Twitter, it might be helpful for you to clean up your following list, but with Instagram keep it and mute people over a long-term period.
The next step is to make a small list of topics and subjects you’d like to stay up to date with. The key here is to filter content based on their emotional impact: I follow politics closely, but with how emotionally demanding politics can be, I try to avoid emotionally stirring content when possible.
I typically follow accounts that are more positive (EG: Upworthy) or follow sources that are as close to unbiased as possible on Mediabias/Factcheck.
3. Use an app limiter
If your phone has the ability to limit app usage, that’s a strategy to use. My phone has a “digital balance” feature where you can track how long you spend on apps, set limits on how long you use apps, and switch your colour scheme to grey-scale (easier on the eyes and signals it’s time to put the phone away for the night).
A cool feature with this is the password lock: if you go over your limit on an app, your phone will lock it and requests a password in order to open the app again. If this is an option, use it. The password will serve as an extra deterrence.
Protip: make sure your texting and calling are exempt from being blocked and have a friend create a password for you. If you need to use the apps longer than what you’ve given yourself, you’ll have to text your friend and explain why. They can choose whether or not to give you the password.
Alternatively, you can do what my friend did: set a REALLY long password that’s tedious to fill out. I’m talking like, max characters. Capitals, numbers, spaces, you name it. Make it annoying.
Bonus Tip: Keep apps where you least use them
If you typically use your phone a lot throughout the day, consider deleting the apps and only checking them in the evenings on your computer. Might feel awkward, which is the point: it’ll make you less likely to constantly check them.
This requires some self-discipline: if you move your social media to another device, you may just using that device more often.
If you end up in that scenario, go back to the drawing board and figure out other tactics, or just go cold turkey and delete the apps on your phone & desktop.
Another method is to put apps in a folder that isn’t on your main screen, so you have to scroll to find them. This might work well with the app limiter feature if you have that.
Regaining your phone time
Social media addiction is a sly beast. It creeps up on you, with each new feature that seems small and manageable. But over time the notifications pile up, the algorithms get out of control, and before you know it you’re neck-deep in pings, messages, and constantly feeling FOMO.
But we can regain control of our phones and our lives, and we can do so by building small habits and strategies to manage our phone use. It takes effort. But I think it’s worth it.
(Note: I made it sound like my job was unhealthy. Everyone encouraged taking breaks and separating work & life: but in a role where you’re serving people through digital, there’s only so much you can do before you cave. I don’t think this is talked about enough in the workplace, especially digital-first companies.)
Content creator, researcher, ideas guy. I write on productivity through a life-style design lens (which is a fancy way to say that I think however you approach your "craft", it is best done in an integrated way).