Social media spotlight: 5 ways to protect your mental health online

Doomscrolling. Even if you’ve never heard the word before, you can understand what it means.

Now more than ever, you might find yourself glued to your phone, tablet or computer, scrolling through news that’s depressing, scary or frustrating. That takes a toll on your health.

“If you’re reading post after post about unpleasant or dangerous things you can’t control, your brain is getting notices that you’re actively in danger,” says Laura Bertrand, licensed professional counselor and mental health expert at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee. “Your brain is then going to want to do something, so it sends in the same hormones you need to meet immediate danger head-on. Activating those hormones when you can’t do anything with them has repercussions.”

How doomscrolling affects your health

A constant stream of negative content can have physical effects, namely:

  • Elevating your blood pressure, heart rate and physical temperature, and
  • Decreasing your immune system, which makes it harder to fight off illnesses.

“When your brain is focused on being under threat, it shuts down your ability to think clearly, react calmly and process emotions,” says Bertrand. “It’s similar to the way your brain responds if you’re affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Living in a constant state of stress is mentally, emotionally and physically taxing. All of those things combined make it hard to take care of the little things in life, like responding to email or remembering to feed the dog.”

Social media and addiction

While research on its effects are relatively new, experts agree social media can have addictive properties. It gives people the “high” of connecting with others, and they crave more and more of that affection and attention over time. Heavy users of social media have even been shown to make riskier decisions, have more physical ailments and live more sedentary lives.

“For me, social media had noticeable negative effects on my mood and my attention to my family,” says Bertrand. “I was on it far too much, and I found myself riding these awful waves of highs and lows all the time. I deactivated it a few months ago and I’ve definitely noticed a decrease in my anxiety.”

5 tips for using social media in a healthy way

While cutting off social media isn’t realistic or necessary for everyone, there are small steps you can take to make sure you’re spending your time online in a healthier way.

1. Think before you share. 

Not all information sources are created equal.

Be a part of the solution by:

  • Checking your sources before you share anything
  • Being aware that anything you read online has the potential of being faked, including videos
  • Waiting a little while before you share something, especially if it seems sensational or designed to get a quick share

“When you’re in a constant state of hyperarousal, it’s hard to think critically,” says Bertrand. “That makes you much more likely to hit ‘share’ on something inaccurate.”

2. Don’t be afraid to unfollow

Most social media platforms give you the ability to unfollow, hide or mute someone without disconnecting or even letting them know you’ve done it.

“Don’t be afraid to hit ‘unfollow’ on a page, account or a loved one,” says Bertrand. “Unfollowing doesn’t mean you don’t love the person; It just means whatever they’re putting out isn’t what you want to get out of social media.”

3. Add some positivity to your feed 

“There’s nothing wrong with pretty pictures!” says Bertrand. “Try following the Audubon Society or Wonderful Places on earth. You’d be surprised how pictures of whales or cheetahs or even funny cat memes can reset your emotions.”

4. Set a time limit

Every time you open a social media app, set a time limit. Whether your goal is to only spend 5 minutes each hour or 15 minutes each day online, set a timer to ensure you don’t lose an hour mindlessly thumbing through pictures or reading upsetting stories. Many phones will even allow you to set screen time alerts to let you know when you’ve been scrolling too long.

5. Do something else

Take a break from social media by adding small, productive tasks to your day. Clean your bathtub, go for a walk or do a puzzle with your kids. Studies have shown that doing even mildly productive tasks increases serotonin levels, which boosts happiness.

Looking for specifics? Click here for 3 home improvement projects for the whole family. 

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley

Ashley Brantley has been writing about food, culture and health for more than a decade, and has lived in three of Tennessee’s four major cities (Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville).

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BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee members can access wellness-related discounts on fitness products, gym memberships, healthy eating and more through Blue365®. BCBST members can also use tools and resources to help improve health and well-being by logging into BlueAccess and going to the in the Member Wellness Center under the Managing Your Health tab.