6 Things I did and 6 Things I learned while regulating my social media time
Dougie’s warm body stirred next to me in the bed as I stretched out wide like a starfish in the pitch black room. Without opening my eyes, my hand fumbles around in the dark for the phone amongst the sheets. I feel the ice cool screen on the palm of my hand and like a cowboy drawing his gun in a dual at dawn, my thumb finds the little circle and the screen bursts to life in front of my groggy, still half-asleep-face in milliseconds.
As if I have drunk 10 tequilas I squint at the white, glowing screen. Magically, the app Instagram opens.
The little heart at the bottom of the screen lights up - 40 likes, 3 comments, a couple of unread messages - are what love hearts mean now. I ignore the notifications for the moment and scroll quickly down my timeline looking…just looking. Nothing is inspiring, or entertaining, or interesting. Dissatisfied, I close it and open Facebook.
There are a few notifications, a couple of people had commented on a post I wasn’t interested in, but for some reason Facebook wanted me to know about it.
A happy, friendly chap commented on one of my posts about why I was travelling Europe researching men’s mental health with a incredibly uplifting message;
I closed Facebook and open Twitter. I had left Twitter over a year ago, but a couple of people had suggested it as a good way to promote my research. Desperate, I rekindled my old account and tweeted my first tweet the day before. One retweet, a few likes. I scroll the timeline, catching an argument on behaviour management in schools, saw The Pool online magazine had closed, and a guy I’ve never met rant about a delayed train.
I begin to spiral.
“What is the point of it all? This research is a complete waste of time. I can’t do it. All the work will just gather dust on a shelf somewhere. I’m never going to get funding. I’m going to run out of money and never finish. How can get a job? Brexit…”
Dougie sensing the mood shift gets up to cuddle up nearer my neck. The room is still dark. I check the time on the phone.
I’ve got a problem.
Social Media and Mental Health
As I write this article Instagram has announced they will remove graphic self-harm images. The move comes after Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl took her own life after viewing graphic images of self-harm on the site prior to her death.
It also hit the headlines today that Doctors declared phones should be kept out of children’s bedrooms and away from the dinner table.
It is well known that social media has detrimental effects on our wellbeing, but what are the actual facts around social media’s impact on mental health?
A 2016 study in young adults revealed increased time on multiple social media platforms is linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety.
A study into 467 Scottish teenagers showed those who used social media more - both overall and at night - and those who were more emotionally invested in social media experienced poorer sleep quality, lower self-esteem and higher levels of anxiety and depression.
An American survey of 1765 young adults aged between 19-32 years found participants in the highest quartiles for social media volume and frequency had significantly greater odds of having dysfunctional eating concerns.
Teenagers who spent more time on new media (including social media and electronic devices such as, smartphones) were more likely to report mental health issues, than adolescents who spent more time on non-screen activities like, in-person social interaction, sports/exercise, homework, print media, and attending religious services.
In 2015 it was found that regularly using Facebook could lead to symptoms of depression if the site triggered feelings of envy in the user.
This is just a handful of studies that add to the rallying cry of policy makers for curbing private organisations like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Snapchat, influence.
Without question, these corporate companies should take responsibility for their customers’ (for that is what we are) wellbeing. However, there are conveniently, a couple of other facts that tend to be glossed over;
Mental health issues are complex with multiple risk factors that impact individuals differently. To suggest mental health problems can be attributed to social media alone would be an oversimplification.
The spotlight on corporate organisations takes it away from the government who is responsible for consistently underfunding mental health services for years and who continue to do nothing to improve research or services.
For good or bad, social media is integral part of modern society. It is not going anywhere. The sooner we can accept that, the sooner we can begin focusing on empowering people to know how to regulate their time and use of social media so it serves them, not the other way around.
After my epiphany it was time I practiced what I preached and made positive changes to regulate my own screen time and social media usage. This is what I did and learnt.
Things I Did
Reminded myself why I was using social media
In the days leading up to my decision to change my social media usage I had become fixated on raising the Happylands Instagram profile by gaining more followers.
I followed more people on Instagram, I commented on posts I didn’t care much about, liked photos I normally wouldn’t even look at, spent hours researching how to use hashtags effectively, and even contacted a PR agency to see if they could help.
Truthfully, my obsession stemmed from a blind panic about the future. I was (and am) worried about how I can continue this research financially after a series of disappointments with government agencies and universities.
You see people who have monetised their social media successfully and I thought, perhaps I could do that too.
Then I realised life would become about content and that to me, is hell.
After my 5.30am wake up call I sat down and wrote down why I started my Instagram account;
To share my research
To document my travels
It really is simple as that. I needed to reconnect with those two aims and just forget everything else.
2. Turned off notifications
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Youtube, ‘whatever the latest trend is’ are all fighting for your attention, ALL THE TIME.
The steady of stream of notifications I would receive throughout the day made sure I continuously checked my phone and spend precious time on those apps.
I would be easily distracted from working, writing, playing with Dougie, chatting with friends, or peacefully staring out the window, by the screen flashing with the promise of likes or comments.
Turning off the notifications meant that I was consciously choosing to enter the apps on my own terms. It instantly made me feel more in control.
3. Deleted or muted those that were longer serving me
I’m usually pretty strict about who I follow as I like to curate my timeline but I had read one way to gain followers was to follow other people. I know, I hate me too.
For each empty follow I felt a piece of my soul float away. It wasn’t long before my timeline was filled with images of stories that I didn’t resonate with or people who didn’t represent me. I found as posts popped up unfollowing or muting those that make me feel anything less than good, really cathartic.
My timeline is now back to being full of people who interest me and expand my thinking such as, psychologists, fat activists, mental health advocates, real van lifers, and of course, friends who make me smile.
4. Unfollow hashtags
Seeing as I’m travelling through Europe in a camper van, it’s not surprising I love seeing others ‘vanlife.’ Following the hashtag meant I could keep up with what other people were doing. In reality the same old images circulated on the hashtags and while beautiful, they are not real. Like deleting and muting those that I did not find helpful, I unfollowed any unhealthy hashtags.
Now my hashtag suggestions are back to being dogs, travel, and inspiring women.
5. Set a schedule
As I want to be on social media to share my research and travels, I couldn’t just delete the apps and be done with it. As a compromise, I scheduled 45 minutes in the afternoon to check social media and/or post if I wanted to.
I purposely chose the afternoon as I wanted to give myself the morning so my mood wasn’t set before the day had even begun.
I also deleted Twitter and Facebook apps from my phone as I personally find these two platforms the most triggering, but I do check them by logging in online.
Again, this all meant I was consciously choosing to enter those apps and my intentions were set before I opened them. I found I no longer scrolled mindlessly, but rather I had a purpose for being there.
6. Used the iPhone’s “Screen Time” and “Do Not Disturb” controls
Lastly, I used the iPhone’s settings to regulate my screen time over all. Previously my ‘Do Not Disturb’ was set from 11pm - 6pm. I changed this to 9pm - 9am. I set the “Downtime” to the same hours and chose the apps I wanted to allow (spoiler, none were social media.)
Things I learnt
I got creative with my new found time.
I was horrified to find my screen time was averaging 5-6 hours per day. Over the course of the week I spent, on average, 32 hours on my phone. 13 hours were dedicated to social media, the rest was a mix of Google Maps (I use it as a SatNav), WhatsApp, Netflix and reading/researching on Safari.
The scary thing is, I wasn’t using my phone in a solid block of 5 hours but it was rather, tiny, regular checks built up to an entire working day. It was so subtle I didn’t even notice I was wasting 5-6 hours per day, 32 hours per week, on an inanimate object.
After I began regulating my time on my phone and specifically, social media, I suddenly had so much more time.
I wrote 2 chapters for my book, I experimented with my photography, even dappled with a little filming, I edited my first video, I read more, I designed new pages for the website, and I brainstormed ideas for the Happylands that will take it in new directions.
2. It is a habit, not an addiction.
I found my screen time alarming. Could I be addicted? I decided to do some research to find out.
The good news is Dr Mark Griffiths believes very few people are genuinely addicted to social media. However, many people’s social media use is habitual and it can start to spill over into other areas of their lives and be problematic, even dangerous, such as checking social media while driving.
Other behaviours like checking social media while eating out with friends or constantly checking your phone while watching a movie at the cinema, may be indicative of problematic social media use.
Habits can be changed, so following digital detox strategies like the ones I’ve outlined above can help. Phew!
3. My mood improved
It could all be psychosomatic of course, but I definitely noticed a shift in my mood and so did those around me. I was less distracted, less irritable, and more relaxed.
4. I reconnected with my friends
“I love watching your instagram stories,” is a typical message I get from mates, “Good! I would hate to be boring!” was my usual reply before we moved onto dissecting the latest Backstreet Boys album (it’s good, but nothing will beat ‘Never Gone’).
I chat to my family and friends away from social media most days, but how they kept up to date about my travels was through Instagram. But as I was posting less I found I would message friends directly with photos or jokes, and would FaceTime them more too. I liked how it felt. I think they liked it too.
5. I like social media
I do genuinely like social media especially, Instagram.
I’ve made so many wonderful connections with wonderful people, that when I saw a message pop up from one of them, I would smile as if it was an old friend. I am constantly learning new things by following therapists and activists. I find it a place of inspiration and community.
For me, social media wasn’t the problem, it was how I was using it. A few tweaks to get myself back in the driving seat has made a world of difference.
6. None of it matters
When you die no one is going to say “They had 10,000 followers and a consistent engagement rating of 5%”
Life is created and remembered through moments, adventures, and achievements.
The likes, follows, comments in the grand scheme of things really don’t matter. To find your worth, independent of external validation, you have to find your purpose. Mine is learning, discovering, exploring and helping others.
I lost sight of that for a little while but after regulating my phone time, I found it again, and that means I can go back to focusing on the the things that really matter.
How do you feel about social media? Do you like it? How do you regulate your screen time?