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5 ways to stay happy and healthy on social media

Alice Gomstyn By Alice Gomstyn

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For months, whenever Sara Thermer scrolled through friends' happy photos on Snapchat, she couldn't help but feel upset. "You'd just see people hanging out together and you’d think, 'Why am I not hanging out with anybody?'" she says.

Darcy DiModugno, an active Twitter user, also found she felt bothered when she perused her feed, which was often filled with biting comments and mean remarks. Though no one directed the hostility toward her, she felt overwhelmed by the drama. "All the negativity was exhausting," she says.

In different ways, both 20-something women found that their social media habit was taking a toll on their mood. And they're hardly alone. Despite providing us with instant virtual communities and connections with long-lost friends, social media has some drawbacks. Various studies suggest that time spent on social media platforms has been associated with feelings of distress, including social isolation and depression.

But the damage that social media may inflict on a person's well-being doesn't always result in a clinical diagnosis. Sometimes, it's just a matter of feeling temporarily upset or noticing how tense your shoulders or jaw are after perusing your feed. In a world where that feed is always a few clicks away, how do you stop it from bringing you down? Here are a few tips to consider:

1. Nurture offline relationships.

Though you can (and probably do) make new friends online, that shouldn't be your sole source of social interaction. "You could have a ton of followers on social media, and feel very alone if you're not investing in friendships and other valuable relationships in person," explains Ashley Karpinski, head of clinical strategy and innovation at Aetna's Resources for Living, which provides emotional support and assistance to Aetna members. To truly nurture your social life, concentrate on connecting with loved ones through face-to-face visits, phone calls or even texts. To keep the momentum going between visits, try planning your next get-together before your first one ends, or consider setting a standing date with friends.

Sara realized that the energy she was investing in tracking social media updates from people she hardly knew would be better spent on a handful of good friends. Today, she says, her close friends take priority. "I would rather really know what's going on in a couple of friends' lives than only kind of know what's happening in one hundred different people's lives," she says.

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Remember, what you see in your social feed isn’t always as perfect as it seems.

2. Keep some perspective.

Social media platforms allow people to present perfectly edited versions of their lives that can make yours seem boring by comparison. But it's important to remember that feeds typically don't provide a complete picture of reality. The friends with the “perfect” lives may very well have their own struggles that you're just not privy to.

So what do you do when you feel the urge to compare your life to someone else's highlight reel? One approach is to simply pause, and notice the thoughts and emotions that this comparison triggers. This approach is based in mindfulness.

Mindfulness, or the practice of being present in the moment and noticing what’s happening within you and around you without judgment, “can help us to distinguish between what we actually know and what we just assume or believe to be true,” says Andy Lee, Aetna's chief mindfulness officer. It can also help you recognize when something on your feed is triggering negative emotions — and whether certain reactions are truly warranted. Mindfulness may, for example, help you realize that the jealousy you feel when seeing a group of acquaintances enjoying an outing without you may be unfounded. Perhaps those acquaintances aren't your close friends and you have other friends who do regularly invite you to social activities.

There are a variety of ways to practice mindfulness. Apps such as Headspace and Calm, available in the Aetna app room, can be a great place to start.

"It felt good that there was one less social media ball-and-chain that I was attached to."

3. Rethink your feed.

Who you follow on social media can have a tremendous impact on your online experience. Other people's angry or hostile messages can be jarring, even if you're not the target. "When there's a constant sharing of personal views, there's more opportunity for disagreements, and even being an observer of that kind of conflict makes people uncomfortable," Karpinski explains. She suggests unfollowing, unfriending or blocking people whose posts get under your skin. "It's actually healthy to be able to disassociate yourself from that conflict or drama," she says.

Darcy, for instance, discovered a newfound sense of calm after she scrubbed her feed of negativity. Now, she sticks to following friends and people who post information relevant to her profession. "I've created a balance," she says. Of course, not everyone wants to be reminded of work when they’re on social media. You may prefer following people who inspire you in real life or pride themselves on “keeping it real” in their posts. To find a mix that works for you, determine whose updates make you feel good, and then tailor your feed accordingly.

4. Limit your time online.

Darcy used to constantly check her feed, and now admits that the habit sometimes kept her from doing things she loved, like reading a good book or spending time with her sisters. These days, she only allows herself to check in twice a day.

Setting time limits on social media use is a smart idea, especially if you’ve found it affects your mood or takes time away from other activities. You may also find it helpful to turn off push notifications and keep your phone out of sight during important times, such as family meals. Strategies are "very individualized," points out Mary Ann Perez, director of clinical operations at Aetna's Resources for Living. "We each have to determine what makes sense and what is needed to get what we’re looking for regarding family and friend updates, news and other information."

Of course, you may decide to step away from a platform completely, like Sara did when she deactivated one of her accounts. "It felt good that there was one less social media ball-and-chain that I was attached to," she says.

5. Talk to a professional.

When it comes to curbing social media use, sometimes do-it-yourself strategies can only help so much. If being online is having a negative impact on your work or personal life — perhaps you're having trouble focusing on your work, sacrificing time for real-life relationships to be on social media, or experiencing frequent anxiety — you may want to consider speaking with a trained mental health professional. “That person might be able to help you with some unique strategies, so that you can alleviate whatever distress social media might be causing," Karpinski says. Aetna members can find local providers using the online provider search tool; remote counseling is also available to some members through Aetna's Behavioral Health Televideo services.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for how to approach social media, and you might need to experiment to determine what makes the most sense for your life. "We all have reasons why we're driven to social media, like keeping up with friends or seeking information," says Karpinski. "It's really important to think about what need a social media platform is filling for you, and to take control of your relationship with it."

About the author

Alice Gomstyn is a veteran parenting blogger and business reporter. She is an admitted sugar addict but plans to cut back on the sweet stuff and load up on veggies like never before. Bring on the broccoli!