Is it possible to have a healthy relationship with social media?

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“Social media is bad for your mental health” – it’s a phrase we’ve heard over and over again. The stresses of lockdown have driven more of us to take breaks from social networking sites, and the rise of digital detoxes shows just how damaging our social media habits can be for our well-being.

During the pandemic, some people have witnessed – perhaps more than ever before – abusive and hateful messages online. Throughout this period, JK Rowling attracted criticism for her comments on trans issues, and rapper Wiley made the news for his anti-semitic outbursts.

This prevalence of hate led the European Union Commission to prepare new guidelines in an attempt to eradicate hate speech on social media by making platforms more transparent, according to Tech Crunch.

But how can we cope in the meantime, if our social media feeds are affecting our mental well-being?

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Be active about when you engage – and when you don’t.

Social media is becoming harder to ignore, so it’s almost essential to manage it properly. Is it even possible to have a healthy relationship with the online world? Social media expert and psychotherapist Aaron Balick believes so.

“The important thing is to be active about the way you engage with social media and not passive,” says Balick. “This means managing your notifications.”

Ideally, Balick says, you should turn off notifications and only check social media when you choose to – rather than habitually looking at your feed. “Be vigilant as to how it makes you feel,” he says. “If it makes you feel depressed, stressed or anxious, come off straight away and give yourself a break.

“Also, think about which feeds are more nourishing to you, and which less so, and plan accordingly.”

Luring ourselves off from social media takes some getting used to – many of us check our feeds whenever there’s a quiet second. And the phenomenon of the “zombie scroll” epitomizes the problem: users scroll for hours for quick, instant hits of dopamine released when they get a like, comment or follow.

“We tend to be addicted to being stimulated by information, checking our feeds at every quiet moment, which stops us having quiet moments that are actually necessary for positive mental health,” explains Balick.

You should have a social media detox when socializing with friends, too. Put your phone out of sight, he suggests. “If you find yourself getting anxious when you can’t check social media, this may be an indication of a dependency, and you should wean yourself off. Come off a platform if it brings you no joy.”

Diversify the content you’re consuming.

Once you have a more balanced approach, it’s time to think about the content you’re taking in. Having your own views backed up by 100% of your feed isn’t necessarily healthy, as it doesn’t provide an authentic view of the world.

Diversity is important, even if you disagree with what another user thinks, says Balick. “It’s important we peer outside our filter bubbles every now and then, but it should be done with an open mind and curiosity.”

“Each person should make their own judgements about this, as peering into some bubbles can be distressing and upsetting,” he adds. “So if you’re going to do it, do it with a purpose and be ready.”

That purpose may be to educate yourself why other people share beliefs you can’t understand, and to humanize people, or to simply gain a broader understanding of conversations going on outside your own friendship circle.

“It can also be a source of important information as to how other people think and feel, so engaging in that can be informative, but also challenging. If you do this, do it to learn, and not pick fights,” warns Balick.

Monitoring new additions to your feed is important, he adds, as they may throw up hateful comments unexpectedly, or make you feel anxious or nervous. It’s important to keep a critical eye on new followers, and old ones too.

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Acknowledge that you may get upset.

Feeling upset on social media is, often, inevitable. Even if you run a tight ship with your feed, users re-sharing posts from others on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook may mean you’re exposed to content you find hateful.

“Don’t engage with trolls or haters if you can,” says Balick. “They live off the energy of kicking up a storm. Gently mute and get on with your life.” Although, he adds, “dissociating from an attack is easier said than done.”

If possible, “put some distance between yourself and the attack,” he says, which may mean working up a defense mechanism, denouncing attacks as childish, or reading more about why people feel they are safer to be hateful behind screens. Whichever works for you.

“Remember, these attacks often have very little to do with who you are, and more to do with someone getting some anger off their chest,” he warns. It may feel personal, but it often isn’t.

While there’s joy to be extracted from online conversations, the relationships that can be built and nurtured in the digital sphere are often limited. “Social media isn’t often the best arena to have rational discussions about different points of view, which are important discussions to have,” urges Balick.

“Always prioritize face-to-face encounters,” he says, and importantly: “Find other ways to share ideas and work through differences that aren’t on social media.”

This post originally appeared in HuffPost UK.

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