Mental health

How to stop social media ruining your life

Get smarter with your smartphone ahead of Mental Health Day

You just have to look up on the Tube to see how addicted London is to social media. Swiping, tapping, scrolling – we’re all at it from first thing in the morning until last thing at night. And the thing is, you know it’s not doing you any good at all. Excessive use of social media has been shown to have a negative impact on everything from your quality of sleep to your energy levels. 

‘People use social media to foster a sense of belonging, to maintain relationships with others, to manage the impressions other people have of us, or just to record life events,’ explains Professor Martin Graff, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of South Wales who specialises in social media. ‘Those who use social media for social interactions and to manage the impressions others have of them might be more likely to suffer poor mental health than those whose primary motive is merely to outline their life events.’

With this in mind, here’s how you can use social media in a healthier way, and avoid all the mental, physical and social pitfalls that come hand-in-hand with making it part of your life.

How to stop social media knocking your self-esteem

Everyone knows that social media isn’t real life – it’s a highlights reel of the best parts of people’s days. Few people post about the bad week at work they just had, or the head cold they just can’t seem to get rid of. But that doesn’t stop all those images of perfect holidays, weddings and parties you weren’t invited to from making your own life feel just a little bit inferior. Psychological research has shown that comparisons on social media can lead to anxiety and acute stress, and a recent survey discovered that three out of four adults have taken a hit to their self-esteem because of social media.

But there are ways to minimise its impact. One way to do this is to curate your feed so you’re only hearing from people who boost you up, instead of bringing you down. This means making friends with the unfollow button. Ditch the fitspo influencers that make you feel guilty for not having spent more time at the gym, and instead pack your feed with people who motivate you, whether that’s with classic style inspiration (The Jackal’s own Instagram, for example) or intelligent, nuanced takes on new films and the big news of the day. 

How to stop social media affecting your energy levels

We’re all tired, all the time. The pace of London life and the stresses of work are enough to exhaust anyone. But social media isn’t helping either. On average, people spend 136 minutes a day on social media: time spent on scrolling through posts, sharing content and talking to friends and family. Although social media has revolutionised how we stay in touch – often for the better – spending so much time glued to a small screen isn’t doing our day-to-day wellbeing any favours: 73 per cent of respondents to a recent survey described experiencing low energy levels due to lengthy social media use and screen time. 

The obvious response is to cut down your screen time. But that’s easier said than done – especially since social media apps are purposefully designed to keep you addicted to the scroll. What you need to do is create a strategy, and narrow down the motivations behind why you use social media. Is it to stay in touch with family and friends? Is it to catch up on the news? Or to share updates from your own life? Then think of alternative ways you can achieve these objectives. Pick up the phone to ring your friends, or organise an IRL meet-up. Bookmark your favourite news websites and speed up your screen time by visiting them directly. And take advantage of any stretches of dead time in your day (your commute to and from work, say) to update your feeds, so social media doesn’t spill over into your work or evenings. Once you’ve got a game plan outlined, it’ll be a lot easier to log off. 

How to stop social media disturbing your sleep

Of course, those lowered energy levels could also have a lot to do with how social media is drastically affecting people’s sleep – both its quality and quantity. A 2018 report found that the average British person gets six hours and 19 minutes of sleep, far less than the recommended seven to nine hours a night. And this isn’t a good thing, with poor sleep linked to an increased risk of developing anxiety, depression, weight gain and reduced immunity. Some studies have even found there’s a relationship between sleep deprivation and high blood pressure, even heart disease.

Social media use has been found to be one of the main culprits behind the national struggle to get a good night’s sleep. In particular, using it 30 minutes before bed has been shown to increase the risk of poor quality sleep – and the more people checked posts, the greater the chance of a restless night. This is because the blue light emitted from screens affects the brain’s production of melatonin, the chemical needed to feel sleepy. The Sleep Health Foundation found that repeated use of a bright screen over five nights can delay the body clock by up to one and a half hours. It could also be due to social media’s addictive nature, which encourages users to stay scrolling later and later.

You can stop social media from disrupting your sleep by implementing the rule that maintains the bedroom is for sleep and sex only – not electronics. Then get in the habit of leaving your phone charging in another room overnight (invest in one of these cool coffee alarm clocks, instead), and save the last 30 minutes of your day for relaxing, unwinding and reading an actual, physical book instead. You’ll sleep a lot better because of it, and you might just find your self-esteem, anxiety, productivity and energy levels get a boost, too.

Professor Martin Graff is a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of South Wales, an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society and a chartered psychologist, martingraff.com