Why and how to unplug from social media

Take action and prioritize your mental health

With the recent release of “The Social Dilemma” on netflix, people have been looking at their social media use with a new eye. This documentary-drama raises many of the same concerns that whistleblowers at social media companies have been bringing up for years now. Common concerns have been centered on how social media changes our thoughts and in turn changes our behavior (similar to the connection that drives therapy outcomes: the thought-feeling-action cycle).

A growing idea among people who are noticing the effects of social media on their lives is taking a “social media detox” or unplugging from social media. We asked our therapists what unplugging means for mental health.

Why Unplug from Social Media?

The American Psychological Association recently started explicitly using the term “mental health crisis” when talking about the state of mental health in america. This recent increase is largely caused by the increase in mental health issues among those younger than 26. Specifically, anxiety and depression among those aged 10-26 have skyrocketed in the past decade.

“More U.S. adolescents and young adults in the late 2010s, versus the mid-2000s, experienced serious psychological distress, major depression or suicidal thoughts, and more attempted suicide,” said Jean Twenge, PhD, author of the book “iGen” and professor of psychology at San Diego State University. “These trends are weak or non-existent among adults 26 years and over, suggesting a generational shift in mood disorders instead of an overall increase across all ages.”

Source: University of Southern California

At the extreme end of mental health we have seen a large increase in mental health episodes that resulted in a visit to the emergency room. These have doubled from 2009 to 2015, with trends continuing upwards through 2020.

If we look at this information and we wonder “why are mental health issues on the rise, especially in young adults?” We realize that the biggest change in society during this period has been the increasing prevalence of social media. Some people point to increasing economic instability in families, but as unemployment and other economic indicators improved from 2009-2015 it’s hard to come to that conclusion.

Other possible reasons for the rise are issues that are all related to social media: less sleep, less physical activity, increased loneliness, overstimulation and disconnection. USNEWS

Social Media Decreases Sleep Quality

One way that screentime can change our lifestyle is when it comes to sleep. The blue light in screens both stimulates our brain (kind of like coffee) and messes with our circadian rhythm (the clock that keeps our sleep timed around the setting of the sun). For these reasons research shows that screen time and social media in particular decrease our quality of sleep. In particular, disruptions in sleep in the developing teenage brain can have an outsized effect on the mental health of young adults.

We at Whole Wellness Therapy understand this relationship, and as a result, we take a holistic approach to mental health, understanding that sleep is important in stabilizing mood across all ages. One recommendation we have for good sleep hygiene is to not look at your phone for one hour before sleep. In fact, that should be the first step in your social media unplugging.

Read more in our free sleep hygiene guide.

Social Media and Screen Time Leads to Less Exercise

The more time that you spend on your phone the less time you have to exercise. Exercise has routinely been shown to have significant benefits for mental health. Once again our holistic approach to mental health is based on that fact. We encourage clients to exercise for at least 30 minutes 3 days a week.

Too often we talk with clients and realize that they make plans to go to the gym but are on their phone and bargaining with themselves “just one more Tik Tok” until it is too late for them to go. In many ways, examples like this can be classic signs of addiction. If you find yourself falling into this loop, try unplugging completely for a week (a social media detox) or so to reset your brain.

Social Media is Decidedly Unsocial

One study at the University of Pittsburgh found that when participants limited their social media use (to 30 minutes a day for 3 weeks) that feelings of loneliness decreased. Feelings of loneliness and disconnection are some of the most significant causes of depression. A fact that is pointed out in Johann Hari’s book appropriately titled Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression. If you want to feel more connected with others, dropping social media may be a good first step.

We will also point out that in teens, social media hinders important person-to-person communication skills and damages self-esteem.

Unstated Reasons to Disconnect from Social Media

Our therapists at Whole Wellness Therapy often suggest that clients develop a hobby or creative pursuit. We do this not in order to help clients distract from their issues, but because we realize that creating things that are completely our own gives us a sense of purpose. Purpose is one of the greatest antidotes to the feelings of alienation, loss of control, and hopelessness that feed mental illness.

From this perspective, perhaps social media is so harmful to our mental health because it deprives us of something that is essential to creativity: boredom. Social media distracts us from boredom, but boredom encourages us to come up with creative ways to spend our time and makes us reflect on what matters in our lives and what we could be doing with it. If we take time to reflect we give space for creativity to flow.

The things that we create with our newfound time in turn give us purpose and happiness. People crave purpose and social media denies us that.

How Should I Unplug from Social Media? Where Do I Start?

Some people like to know how much social media they are using. They want to focus on gathering information about how they use it before they commit to something. If this is the case, we don’t have advice for you as maybe you aren’t ready to stop using social media just yet — and that’s perfectly OK! Unplugging from social media is for those that know they are using too much social media and want to take control.

Option A: Quit Cold Turkey

Some people find that if they set many rules with many conditions they can talk themselves into bending them one by one until it is as if they didn’t set any limits. If you think this is what happens to you, or if you have the desire to try, you can quit using social media entirely.

Delete all the social media apps from your phone. Only leave texting and email. Give it one full week without any of these technologies and then consider what your limits should be. 30 minutes a day? 1 hour? None? It can be hard to decide these things when you are still using them all the time. After taking a break it can put your priorities in perspective.

The first step is deciding to stop and sticking to it. You can do that right now, so go ahead.

Option B: The Weaning Approach

If you are really committed to your phone and couldn’t just stop using it at once, you may need to reduce how much you use it with time.

Step 1: Don’t use social media 1 hour before your bedtime.

Limiting our sleep is the worst effect of social media, as it makes us wake up and feel terrible throughout the day and so in turn we use social media even more to distract from the pain. Break this cycle and get a full night's sleep by keeping your phone across the room from your bed or in a different room entirely.

If you use your phone as an alarm you might bargain on this and say “I need my phone next to my bed,” but it could be only a matter of time before you get into your old habits. Instead, consider leaving the phone alone and buy an alarm clock if you need to. Otherwise, some suggest that snoozing makes us more tired during the day, so walking across the room first thing in the morning may be a good call.

Step 2: Don’t use social media for 30 minutes to an 1 hour after waking up.

If the first thing you do when you wake up is use social media, you may be starting your day off using a crutch. Just as some alcoholics have to start their day off with a bit of alcohol, using your phone immediately in the morning could be a red flag.

Step 3: Turn off notifications.

In The Social Dilemma they make a point to talk about nudges and notifications and how they are essentially the app/phone begging for your attention, which is hard for us to resist. If you turn these notifications off you will buy more time without social media and so will only use it when you want to, and not when you feel you have to. Here is how you can limit your notifications. Open your phone -> go to settings -> notifications. Go through these notification options one by one and consider how many you actually need. We suggest you keep to a maximum of 5 notficiations, but see how low you can go.

Step 4: Set hard limits on screen time for social media.

There are a variety of apps that lock you out of your social media after a certain amount of time. We suggest Qustodio or ScreenTime, but there are many on the app store. Read reviews, choose one and set a limit on screen time for you or your family.

Learn more about social media & teens in our other article: Unsocial Media: The Impact of Social Media on Teenage Self Esteem and Communication.

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