Socializing is a vital part of our lives — it helps us feel more connected and create community. When we’re apart, using social media makes it easier to stay in touch and maintain those connections. It has other benefits, too, such as allowing us to practice social skills in a low-stakes environment, find new friends through shared interests, and preserve memories. But we all know that social media isn’t without its downsides.
Many of us can relate to losing track of time or feeling unmotivated after a mindless scroll. And it’s easy to feel lonely when we’re only communicating virtually, or worse, we might feel a sense of low self-worth in comparison to the pictures of perfection we see online — whether they represent reality or not.
If you’re hoping to establish a healthier relationship with social media, understanding the impact it has on conditions like loneliness or anxiety is key. With this knowledge, we can learn how to take a mindful approach to social media use, gaining greater control over our digital behaviors and feeling less controlled by them in our real lives.
Social media can take a toll on our thoughts and emotions
With mindfulness, we can learn to focus on the good parts of social media and avoid the common pitfalls
Try 8 meditations to use social media more mindfully
From push notifications to targeted advertisements, the manipulative practices of social media are real. Put plainly, these platforms are designed to lure us in and keep us there (the more time we’re plugged in, the better their metrics). Unfortunately for us, the negative impact of social media only gets worse the more time we spend on it. And once we’re hooked, the platforms tend to be the only side that wins. The negative effects of social media on mental health are real, too:
Anxiety. If you find yourself feeling anxious or depressed after being on social media, you’re not alone. Research has shown that social media and anxiety go hand and hand, with increased screen time exacerbating feelings of anxiousness, and sometimes even creating them in the first place.
Fear of missing out. Otherwise known as FOMO, these feelings of anxiety may come from not being invited to or not participating in enjoyable experiences with others. FOMO can lead to a negative thought cycle unique to social media: Worry sets in that events are happening without us, followed by the urge to keep scanning the platforms for proof, and finally, feeling a sinking validation of our worry when we see proof of those off-our-radar gatherings in posts online.
Body image and self-esteem. When airbrushed photos fill our feeds, it can be easy for negative feelings surrounding social media and body image to creep in. The thin-ideal presented in photos online creates an unattainable social media body image that can have a real effect on our self-esteem. When we’re hooked on regular scrolling and we see more and more picture-perfect images, sometimes we end up feeling worse about ourselves.
Sleep issues. Constant scrolling can also chip away at sleep. One British study found that teenagers who used social media for more than 3 hours per day were more likely to go to sleep late and wake up during the night. That’s more bad news for those of us who spend a lot of time on social media and suffer from anxiety: We end up feeling anxious about what we’re seeing on the apps, and even more anxious from the lack of sleep caused by our time spent scrolling.
Cyberbullying. One survey found that 30% of teens in the U.S. had experienced some form of cyber aggression in the last month, from unkind statements to rumors and even threats. Cyberbullying can be difficult to monitor, and it can have real, dangerous effects on mental health for people of all ages who experience it.
With these negative effects top of mind, it’s tempting to want to remove social media from our lives completely. And while that’s certainly an option if we find that we’re better off without it (and can stay off it), it’s still possible to keep our daily scroll and curb the bad feelings.
To use social media in a way that makes us feel good, we can start by recognizing the good things that come from it. Social media can be home to positive social movements, a place to connect over common interests, and a resource for communities that would otherwise be disconnected from the rest of the world. What’s more, now that every one of us is familiar with feelings of isolation due to the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, we might find a new appreciation for apps designed to keep us close, especially when we’re physically distant.
To focus on the good and avoid the common pitfalls, there are a few habits to help us use social media more mindfully:
Spend less time on social platforms. One study found that reducing social media use to a maximum of a half hour a day led to a decrease in feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness. Need a little help tracking those 30 minutes? Phone settings allow our devices to alert us when we’ve reached our quota for the day — with these benefits top of mind, we can feel good sticking to it.
Don’t scroll first thing in the morning or before bed. While many of us use wake-up alarms on our devices (making it all too easy to reach for our phones in bed), a constant stream of news, updates, and selfies doesn’t typically set the best conditions for winding down or gearing up to start the day. Consider establishing more mindful routines around these 2 daily constants. Screen-free activities like journaling, practicing gratitude, and meditation are great places to start.
Turn off notifications and only check social media at certain times. We all know how easy it is to respond to pings showing us the latest comments or new posts. But in reality, we’re the ones in control. Try a tip from Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe: "I check in with email and social media at dedicated times where possible. I find this helps limit distractions. I do not have email or social media apps on my homepage and I have all notifications turned off.” Without all that prompting, and with a schedule that you control, you might find that you can avoid a lot of social media anxiety.
Use social media on a device that’s not your phone. When we think about it, do we really need access to every social media platform on all of our devices? Try taking a break by removing apps one-by-one from the device you use most (likely your phone) and see if it’s easier to find a better balance in your social media use when it isn’t always on hand. When we access social media only when we’re sitting at a computer, we might find ourselves less concerned with the virtual world, and able to be present with our physical surroundings.
Create a feel-good follow list. If the worry is that social media use is contributing to negative feelings, we audit our follow list. Unfollow the accounts that might be leading to the negative feelings we’ve mentioned, and instead follow accounts that make us feel good, provide entertainment, or even help motivate us to reach your goals. We might also try maintaining a profile in which only real-life friends and community leaders are the majority of that new follow list so we can use social media as it was originally intended: to find new friends and maintain bonds when we’re apart.
Social media user or not, it’s always worth remembering that we can improve our mental well-being by practicing mindfulness meditation. Meditation has real benefits, and research shows that it can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and improve self-compassion. For meditation practices that can help address some of the negative feelings you might have after spending too much time on social media, try one related to gratitude, self-compassion, or being present. When we’re focused on the now, we’re less likely to think about what might be new on social media. To get there, these mindfulness practices can help.
Using the training we get from meditation can help us take a mindful approach to using social media in a better way. At the end of the day, our phones are just pieces of metal, and it’s our relationship with them — and social media — that can affect our moods. Mindfulness gives us an awareness that helps us observe how much time we spend online, and whether or not that’s healthy. It also helps us catch ourselves in the moments when we feel the urge to reach for our phones at a time when a scroll might not be helpful. The more we practice mindfulness, the more we can create a better relationship with using our phones, and how they make us feel.
Looking for more meditations to build awareness and find balance between our lives on- and offline? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses and single meditations on topics related to social media and anxiety, including:
Putting Down Our Phones guidance. Devices don't cause stress — how we relate to them does
Managing Anxiety 10-day course. Experience anxious thoughts from a new perspective.
Letting Go of Stress 10-day course. Learn to reframe negative emotions and let them go.
Restlessness 10-day course. Learn to work with a restless mind more skillfully.
Reframing Loneliness 10-day course. Learn to feel more connected to the world around you.
Reset meditation. Find some focus and relaxation during a busy day.
Alone Time meditation. Allow yourself to unwind when no one's around.
Connect With the World mindful activity. Get out of your head and into the world around you.
Now that we have the tools, let’s see how it feels to choose not to open up a social media platform right away the next time we feel the pull of the feed. Instead of grabbing our devices, try taking a breath or two first. This way, we’ll help set the conditions to make a more mindful choice of what to do in that moment, and, if we do decide to scroll, scroll with greater awareness and intention.