The connection between social media and mental health is a powerful one: several studies have shown that extended use of apps can negatively impact us. But with some changes, you can create a feed that actively makes you happier. Experts share their top healthy social media habits.
Social media doesn’t always make us feel great, and yet, we log on anyway.
One reason? With a slew of addictive features—like the endless scroll—social media apps are specifically designed to keep us searching, scanning, clicking, and tapping.
But that’s not the sole reason we get sucked in: When done right, social media can actually be a fun, fascinating place to hang out. So, you don’t have to cut scrolling from your life (unless of course, you’d like to, which can be a wise choice too).
The key to healthy social media use? Curate your feed into a safe, supportive space that enhances your mental health, instead of sinking it. We know that’s easier said than done, which is why we tapped experts to share their top healthy social media habits.
What Is the Connection Between Social Media and Mental Health?
First, let’s point out the elephant in the room: While the research is mixed, many studies have linked social media use with multiple mental health concerns.
A 2019 review of 13 studies found associations between social media use and depression, anxiety, and psychological distress in teens. Similarly, in an experimental study, participants who scrolled their Facebook news feeds reported lower self-esteem and higher depression levels than participants who browsed a Facebook page with non-social content. The likely cause? Comparison.
Social media can also keep us up at night and hamper sleep. A 2016 study found that young adults, between the ages of 19 and 32, who used social media more often had greater chances of having disrupted sleep. This review revealed that frequent social media use, particularly at night, led to less sleep, later bedtimes, and poorer sleep quality.
What’s more, limiting social media use can have positive effects on mental health. For example, a study published just this month of 154 participants between 18 and 72 years old found that taking a week-long break from social media reduced anxiety and depression. Participants who skipped social media also reported increases in wellbeing, agreeing with statements like: “I’ve been feeling optimistic about the future” and “I’ve been thinking clearly.”
Of course, social media isn’t all bad. Using social media can:
- Connect us with others
- Teach or sharpen a new skill
- Provide a space to express ourselves
- Make us laugh
- Inspire us to make healthy changes
And because social media has become ingrained in our culture, it’s difficult to abandon it completely. (Plus, you may not want to!) Luckily, you don’t need to go dark on social to make it a safer space.
How to Use Social Media in a Healthy Way
Whether we realize it or not, social media plays a big role in our inner lives and outlook. “The accounts that we follow matter and affect the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us,” says Alison Seponara, a licensed professional counselor and author of The Anxiety Healer’s Guide.
The bright side: If we decide to stay on social apps, we can create feeds “full of encouragement, support, and non-judgment,” says Seponara.
Start with these 12 therapist-approved strategies:
Slow Down While You Scroll
Many of us automatically scan our feeds without stopping to carefully consider how we’re feeling about what we’re seeing. The next time you log in, reflect on these questions, says Ana Sokolovic, a licensed psychotherapist in private practice and writer for the ParentingPod.com:
- Is the content triggering a spiral of negative self-talk or memories?
- Does my energy drop, while my frustration, shame, or sadness rises?
- Am I passing right by the content, rarely reading or watching?
If you find yourself answering yes to many, or any, of these questions, it might be time to unfollow an account.
Keep in mind: Your unfollow isn’t permanent, so if you truly miss that person, brand, or organization, you can always reconnect.
Survey Your Self-Esteem
Another sign it’s time to unfollow or mute for your mental health? The account leads you to feel bad about yourself, says KC Davis, a licensed professional counselor and author of “How To Keep House While Drowning.”
Here’s the thing: “The answer doesn’t have to make sense,” points out Davis. If an account with pretty, helpful design content makes you feel guilty about your unfinished projects, it’s totally okay to unfollow, she says. The same goes for the influencer with good intentions, great clothes, and a million fans.
As Davis reminds us, “This is your feed that you are cultivating, and it can either have a distressing or an uplifting effect on you.”
Identify Your Intentions
Ultimately, take a step back and ask yourself what you “want your eyes, brain, and body exposed to whenever you touch your phone,” says Perpetua Neo, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “This is What Matters.”
For example, she says, would you like your social feeds to be about fun, learning and growing, or connecting with others? If yes, then you should take steps to curate a positive environment.
Conduct the 3-Posts Test
Wondering if a new-to-you account is worthy of a follow? “When I go to someone’s page to see if I want to follow them, I ask myself if I like their last three posts,” says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist who works with moms and moms-to-be.
Not sure if you like it? Use this quick check-in from Seponara: “If you find yourself smiling as you look at an image and [feeling] more energy, more positive, and more hopeful, then it sounds like an account for you.”
Be Picky With Your Likes
With social media, it’s important to remember that its “algorithms are tricky and built to give you more of what you like to keep you on the app,” says Oludara Adeeyo, a psychiatric social worker and author of the book “Self-Care for Black Women.”
That means that if you’re liking something that stresses you out (because, for example, you feel like you should), it can “spiral you down into an unhealthy hole of content that isn’t good for you,” says Adeeyo. (Don’t believe it? Check out The Wall Street Journal’s investigation of TikTok’s algorithm.)
Skip Accounts That Promote Diet Culture
Social media is saturated with “health” content that can veer into unhealthy territory. But in our weight-obsessed society, what’s harmful isn’t always clear.
One red flag, says Neo, is “any account that makes food sound like something that warrants punishment”—as in you must exercise to “work off” something you ate.
Other signs that you might unfollow or avoid, says Davis, are accounts that:
- Talk about weight loss as a goal
- Call foods good/bad, healthy/unhealthy
- Use terms like “junk food,” “detox,” or “clean eating
- Idealize how people “used to eat”
- Claim that just one aspect of body functioning is key to health, like gut health or cutting out an entire food group or ingredient (e.g., sugar)
Make a Difference With Tangible Steps
Over time, following news sources can be stressful. But many of us keep scrolling because we feel guilty if we tune out. Whether you decide to unfollow news accounts or not, Davis recommends refocusing on tangible ways you can help:
- List several causes you care about
- Under each cause, list concrete actions you can take to effect change
- Consider which actions fit into your life and current abilities. For example, you might repost a message from a charity doing important work or donate to a resale shop whose proceeds go to domestic violence shelters
Harness a Hobby
“It can help to follow people and other social media pages that focus on your hobbies or things you enjoy,” says Alexander Burgemeester, a neuropsychologist and owner of The Narcissistic Life. This could be anything from cooking to decorating to reading, he says.
Don’t currently have a hobby that resonates? Think about something you’ve always wanted to try, usually soothes your soul, or recently piqued your interest—the more obscure, maybe the more interesting. Then find accounts on the topic that are bright and encouraging.
Follow Relatable People
“Fill your feed with more people that have bodies, homes, [and budgets] that look like yours,” says Davis.
Here’s why: “If all you follow are thin, rich influencers, you are likely going to feel inadequate, and you’ll find yourself comparing your life to theirs,” Davis explains.
Think Inspirational, Not Aspirational
If you’d like to learn from your social feeds, knowing the distinction between inspirational and aspirational is important.
Before following someone, Davis asks herself:
“Is this account going to inspire me to be the person I want to be in terms of healing and growth, or is it simply intended to aspire me to want what this person has in terms of a body, a house, an income, fame, beauty, organization, etc.? Is this account going to help me live my best life or will I simply be watching someone else live theirs?”
Follow Uplifting, Insightful, Positive Accounts
The good news: Social media is packed with excellent, enjoyable, thoughtful content. Here are some favorite accounts of the therapists we interviewed, which might be a fit for your feed:
But remember: Pay attention to how each account makes you feel. A great account stops being great if it’s triggering negative reactions.
Make Your Phone Less Fun
Sometimes the issue isn’t with our feeds but the frequency of our use. If you’re scrolling a bit too much (you’re not alone, try these tiny tweaks to cut down:
- Switch your phone to grayscale
- Leave your phone outside of your room before bed
- Turn off all notifications
- Delete social apps from your phone, or delete them on days you tend to over-use them, like the weekends
Social media can have serious downsides and important perks. The key is to amplify the positives by creating a feed that supports your mental health.
Make your social media into a space that honors your physical, emotional, and social wellbeing. “Your social media feed is one of your windows into the world,” Sokolovic says. “Remember: You have control over what you consume.”