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Glued To Your Phone? Here's How To Rethink Your Relationship With Social Media

Photo: J_art, Getty Images
Photo: J_art, Getty Images

Navigating the internet can feel like a lot. There's cute animal videos, plant parent groups, inspiring fashionistas and information on many #movements. But there's also plenty of bad news, hate speech and harassment, catfishing, misinformation and more.

"The Internet can crack us open to seeing so many things that we would have never encountered otherwise. And that's one of the most beautiful, miraculous things about it. But it can also divide our attention and make us feel fractured," says Chris Stedman, author of IRL: Finding Realness, Meaning, and Belonging in our Digital Lives.

I'm a Libra which means I was born to find balance, and I wanted to apply that principle to my social media behaviors and consumption.

It's a constant ongoing individual project, but if it's something that you want to do, too, here are four tips I've come across to help you get started.

Remember, social media is designed to be addicting

It's no secret that apps and social media companies are competing for consumers' attention. The more time spent on an app or platform, the better. And that means a series of design choices have been made, to slowly but surely keep us locked in.

When media studies Professor Shaka McGlotten uses an app like Facebook or Twitter, they sometimes wonder whether using social media can be considered a consensual interaction at this point. How much of our social media behavior is ours and how much of it is influenced by the medium itself?

It's a question that may seem unrelated to our relationship to social media, but like any relationship, McGlotten, who alsoteaches anthropology at Purchase College-SUNY, says it's important to take a step back and think about the nature of the relationship itself.

"I think it's worth asking in this relationship whether it should always fall upon us to be like, 'OK, I just got to pull it together...and just stop doomscrolling. It's up to me,'" McGlotten says. "When the companies themselves could make certain kinds of choices that would make it a little bit easier for us."

They're talking about features like pull to refresh, endless scroll, autoplay and the algorithms these platforms use to show you more of what they think you like.

McGlotten says, the onus isn't just on us as users but also on our partners (the companies), to encourage healthier behaviors. Keeping that in mind is a good first step when thinking about what your part and responsibility is in balancing your digital diet.

Your relationship with social media is real. Treat it that way.

Part of the hand wringing around how much time we spend on social media may stem from the belief that it's not always considered a "real" experience — that it's a frivolous habit that needs to be reigned in. That's not entirely the case, says Stedman, the IRL author.

"We've told ourselves that life online is less real than life offline. It doesn't really count in the same way," Stedman says. "What that means is if we see something in our own habits online that makes us uncomfortable, we can just kind of wave it off."

Stedman says if we're going to have a healthier relationship with social media, we've got to stop thinking of it as a mindless activity and start thinking of it as a meaningful one with the potential to reveal certain truths about ourselves.

Who are you when you're online? Have you taken a look at your timeline recently? Scroll through your profile and look at your tweets and posts — what are you putting out into the world? Do you like what you see?

But don't stop your examination there.

To mindfully define the relationship that you want with social media, you can ask yourself:

  • What does a healthy relationship look like to me?
  • What needs am I trying to meet right now?
  • Scan your body - how do you feel after an hour online? Is that too much time?

Be an active participant in your relationship. Marie Kondo your social media.

If you're someone, like me, who spends a lot of time on the internet, taking some time to spruce up your digital space — the same way you would any part of your home — can be helpful.

At least once a year, I go through my 'following' list on Twitter, Instagram and TikTok, and clean it out. I ask myself: What accounts are bringing me joy, helping me learn, challenging me or otherwise bringing value to my life? Which ones aren't?

I've turned off most notifications to have a bit more control of when I engage with social media. I'm also quick with block, mute and other functions that let me restrict the kind of content I don't want to see. Kind of like pruning your social media garden!

Take breaks as needed.

Every once in a while, you may see a friend post that they're doing a social media "detox," giving up a particular platform for Lent or even deleting everything for good. Being extremely online isn't for everyone — especially people who have high visibility or who suffer from harassment. The internet is often not fun.

But if you do want to continue to engage, it can be helpful to incorporate breaks into your social media routine to maintain a sense of balance. Stedman says these little breaks function the same way a sabbatical or vacation from work does.

It doesn't have to be forever or even the same length every time — just make sure you're giving yourself the space to intentionally step back to get some perspective. Take some time away to disconnect and be alone, be bored and gather your own thoughts and opinions. You can even plan to do this regularly if it helps.

Like Stedman says, if you want to change your relationship with social media, you gotta commit.

"It's a regular practice of constantly checking in with yourself and recalibrating as both the landscape online changes and you as a person and your own needs and and the circumstances of your life change as well," he says.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Audrey Nguyen, with audio engineering support from Brian Jarboe.

As mentioned in the podcast, here is a list of tips from the Center for Humane Technology for how to exercise more control over your social media usage.

We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. For more Life Kit, subscribe to our newsletter.

Danielle Prieur covers education in Central Florida.