If you asked me whether I love or hate social media and the internet, I’d probably just glare at you. Of course I love the internet. I’ve loved it since the first time I dialed up and read every available article on AOL Kids (and hit a wall, since content creation back then had a limit).
I also absolutely despise it. In just five minutes I can read the details of the concurrent global genocides that are taking place, check on the current worldwide COVID-19 death toll, read a “35 Bestselling Authors Under 35” list (and lament the fact that my time has passed), and delete a few creepy messages from men on my Linkedin. And Instagram. And probably Facebook, if I ever logged on anymore.
Due to physical distancing, many of us are spending even more time online than we used to. Three quarters of the public uses some type of social media and roughly three-quarters of Facebook users – and around six-in-ten Instagram users – visit these sites at least once a day. If anything, I’ve added the number of apps and services I use in 2020.
We know that having a strong social network contributes to positive mental health and wellbeing and social media and the internet have done so much to help overcome the barriers of time and distance. I think it’s a good thing that I know about what’s going on in Syria, Sudan, Myanmar, and more. But it’s all about balance.
Many of us know that social media usage activates the brain’s reward center by releasing dopamine. But part of the unhealthy cycle is that we keep coming back to social media, even though it doesn’t make us feel very good in the long run. We’re elated when we see a like or a notification and get a dopamine hit, but the opposite happens as well. Like a drug, we think getting a fix will help, but it actually makes us feel worse, which comes down to an error in our ability to predict our own response, what’s known as a forecasting error. We continue to think social media is going to make us feel good. It often doesn’t.
While we might expect social media to make us feel good, are any of us expecting that from the news anymore? Media exposure during the 24/7 news cycle can increase perceptions of threat and activate the "fight or flight response," producing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This can lead to subsequent physical and mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, fatigue, and loss of sleep. In one study, participants who watched just fourteen minutes of negative news showed increases in both anxious and sad moods, and also showed a significant increase in the tendency to catastrophize a personal worry.
When it comes to the news, overthinking or obsessing over negative events—such as continual preoccupation with tracking the coronavirus—won’t produce new information, but it can detrimentally infect your entire outlook. Negative rumination cyclically unearths new anxieties and fears and is associated with things like depression and PTSD. It also affects our problem-solving abilities, motivation, and interpersonal relationships.
Of course we want to stay educated and informed, but too much news can be bad for our mental health. As the concept of negativity bias explains, the human brain is wired to pay attention to information that scares or unsettles us. Historically, this has been a good thing: we’re programmed to detect threats instead of overlook them. But it goes overboard in our news consumption.
Have you ever opened an app “just to check” and looked up to find out an hour (or more) had gone by? Do you find yourself running through the “app cycle” (habitually checking one app after another after another) on your phone every time you look at it?
There’s a reason.
App and platform technologies are designed to be immersive, hence producing flow while using a certain app. It is well known that flow goes along with a feeling of time distortion and this is exactly what many developers of social media apps and Freemium games aim to achieve—a person being so immersed that he or she is forgetting about time and space while using a platform or app.
Every single part of an app or website is engineered to keep you engaged, from the size, shape, and color of buttons to the length of videos to the size of text and images. This is before you even start to think about the content. Many of us are savvy enough by now to spot a clickbait headline from a mile away (and sometimes still can’t help ourselves), but so much more goes into making us watch and read and click than we even know.
And it’s not just apps. If you watch reality TV and find yourself itching to get through a commercial break or to the next episode, you might notice that news programs employ similar tactics to keep you hooked. Scripts like “Murder hornets: Just angry bees or out to kill your entire family? Tune in tonight to find out” or even something as simple as “We’ll be back with more after the break” are designed to keep you watching.
More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result. Yet one in 10 adults checks the news every hour, and fully 20% of Americans report “constantly” monitoring their social media feeds.
If you see yourself in those stats, you’re not alone—I’m with you.
Well, is it helping you or hurting you? The many interruptions due to high frequency smartphone use and the many daily incoming messages fragmenting everyday life could reduce productivity at work and lower a person’s wellbeing.
Research strongly suggests that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being. Thirty minutes might sound like a lot to some people, but just anecdotally, every single person I ask about their media consumption (including myself!) vastly underestimates the amount of time they spend on social media—and that’s before we even start talking about news media consumption.
And do you even want to? It’s unlikely that most of us will quit social media completely and a lot of us can’t—I use social media and the news for work. But as long as we are mindful users, routine use may not in itself be a problem.
Self awareness is key. Most of us are mindless users who are guided by the engineering of the platform. The first step is to become mindful. Are you passively observing, actively posting, or purposefully connecting on social media? Do you get the information you need or want and then log off or are you scrolling just to scroll? Are you using social media to kill time or for a numbing effect? Are you reading or watching positive news stories along with the negative? I say I have to use the internet “for work,” so does that mean I just get to sit on the internet all day, doing whatever pops up? No! I try to make a plan, set timers, and eliminate distractions when I’m working. And if I’m not working, I keep my phone in another room.
Unfollow sources that consistently make you upset or don’t provide quality information. Use settings in the apps to restrict the flow of information. Seek out good news!
While you should vary your sources to make sure you’re not operating in a bubble, all sources are not created equal. It’s about quality, not quantity. You could subscribe to newsletters or follow accounts that share a range of information so you can maximize the amount of information you’re getting for a shorter period of exposure time.
When it comes to current events and public health, choose a few trusted sources for guidance, such as the CDC and WHO, rather than scrolling social media to find updates.
Going back to self awareness, ask yourself:
This might be one of the most important steps—the decision of which tactic is going to work best for you. Many of us know the options we have to reduce our media consumption:
Some people choose to do social media detoxes, which is great. Simply not using social media is not an option for many of us, so what would work for you? I typically spend one day a week “away.” It wasn’t a hard and fast rule, I just found myself naturally not using my phone very much on Saturdays. Twitter makes me sad, so I deleted the app from my phone and end up only checking in a few times a day on my desktop. Figure out which actions will actually work for you and try a few out.
Recently, I was listening to a panel of people who were all following the election closely for their jobs. Someone asked them if they were ready to be glued to their televisions and phones on election day. Not one of them said yes. “At that point, our work is done,” one participant said. “Tracking every moment won’t do anything.” They all had plans in place for election day, from hiking to reading to learning a video game with their kids. They could have been glued to their smartphones, of course, but they made a plan to replace the urge to scroll with a different behavior. What’s your favorite thing to do? Can you do that instead of “checking in” on social?
I won’t deny that the internet and the global news are awesome. I can talk to my friends all over the world, find out about places to eat when I travel, tour museums in cities I’ve never visited, and read stories about people I would have never heard from. With the right balance, you can use the power of social and news media for good, and take care of your mental health and wellbeing at the same time.
Caitlin is MyWellbeing's Content Lead, a writer, speaker, communication coach, and the founder of Commcoterie, a communication consultancy. She teaches teams how to use professional coaching communication techniques in their everyday conversations, helps leaders engage their teams with effective and inclusive communication, and partners with service providers to activate their programs and offerings with their own clients through inspiring communication strategies. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.