Mental Challenges

‘I’m a Psychologist, and These Are the Benefits of Taking a Social Media Fast’

Erin Bunch

Photo: Getty Images/SolStock
Social media has been a lifeline to many throughout the pandemic; it’s kept us connected to one another, helped us to stay informed of the latest news, allowed us to more easily organize around social causes, and provided us some respite from the gravity of it all, too. None of this means, however, that the potential negatives of social media on mental health have suddenly dissipated, and the more we expose ourselves to the virtual world, the more likely we are to experience these adverse effects. So if you’re more addicted to social media now than ever (which would be understandable, by the way), but notice you’re not feeling great after every scroll sesh, it might be time to partake in a social media fast.

Erin A. Vogel, PhD, a social psychologist who studies social media and its effects on well-being, says that while social media use is associated with some (infrequently publicized) positive effects, there are several areas of concern that might warrant caution around over-use. “One is lower self esteem; when people use social media, they compare themselves to unrealistic versions of other people,” she says. “We’re not necessarily lying about who we are or what we’re doing on social media, but we’re not telling the full story of our lives, either—we’re presenting highlight reels. And when other people see our profiles and compare their real lives to our kind of idealized versions of our lives, they can feel bad about themselves as a result.”

Your mood may also plummet after social media use due to the nagging feeling that scrolling through selfies isn’t necessarily the best use of broad swaths of your day. “After spending a lot of time on social media, some people will feel they’ve wasted time, and this will actually make their mood worse,” says Dr. Vogel.

Suffice it to say, taking a hiatus from social media stands to offer serious benefits. “A social media fast can offer a much-needed respite for the body, mind, and spirit,” says Carla Marie Manly, PhD, clinical psychologist and author of Joy From Fear.  “Fasts can increase positivity, decrease anxiety, and assuage feelings of depression.”

“Being disconnected from the highlight reels of other people’s lives can be really helpful in helping us feel better about ourselves and about our own lives,” —social psychologist Erin A. Vogel, PhD

A social media fast not only eliminates the possibility for those unhealthy comparisons in the digital world, but Dr. Manly says it can actually offer the added benefit of boosting a positive sense of self. “As social media is one of the key triggers of what I’ve coined as ‘the voice of toxic comparison,’ a respite can lead to increased self-esteem,” says Dr. Manly. FOMO may, too, dissipate, adds Dr. Vogel, which can also lead to improvements in mood. “Being disconnected from the highlight reels of other people’s lives can be really helpful in helping us feel better about ourselves and about our own lives,” she says.

Furthermore, without the constant distraction of notifications, you may find yourself upleveling your time-management skills, completing work that previously felt overwhelming, suddenly having time for neglected self-care practices, and just generally finding your daily life less stressful and hectic due to the found time and focus recovered from social media use. “When attention is turned toward other arenas, the shifts—even if relatively temporary—can provide profound results,” says Dr. Manly. “Without social media as an external distraction, time and energy can be turned inward to focus on personal growth and development.”

“A social media fast doesn’t require that we disengage from each other; it simply offers the opportunity to engage in different, and often more meaningful, ways.” —clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD

In addition to those introspective gains, benefits of logging off from your feeds include helping you turn outward. While logging off may initially leave you feeling disconnected, both Dr. Manly and Dr. Vogel insist you can take the opportunity to actually grow your interpersonal relationships be investing more quality time into them—even if it’s just through a phone call. “A social media fast doesn’t require that we disengage from each other; it simply offers the opportunity to engage in different, and often more meaningful, ways,” Dr. Manly says.

As for how long a fast should be in order to reap the benefits, Dr. Vogel says there’s no set length she’d recommend. “Everybody has a different baseline level of social media use, so what might be a really dramatic reduction in use for one person might not be a big deal to another person,” she says. With this in mind, she says it’s best to look at your own baseline social media use and and set a realistic, individualized goal from there. Still, Dr. Manly recommends you try for at least three days. “Once an individual experiences this beneficial three-day pause, a sense of ‘I can do this! I am in control!’ arises,” she says. “A one- or two-day fast can leave a person feeling less empowered and recharged than a full 72-hour break.”

And if after your hiatus, you return online to find yourself immediately feeling the same toxicity or negative feelings that prompted your break, clinical psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD, says the problem might not be social media itself but rather the online circles in which you run. “You might need to make a new social media plan so that you’re spending most of your time with people and information that support your needs,” she says.

Dr. Daramus suggests contemplating what you’d like to see in your feed in order to feel “refreshed and supported,” and then try to curate your experience around them. She also notes that you may need to block, mute, or unfriend some of the people you follow in order to make your overall experience more positive, or steer clear of negative content. “Switch it up for things that are funny, uplifting, or support your goals,” she says.

Nothing says you can’t adopt both strategies, either. You may want to take a hiatus and also prune your feed so that when you do return to the fold, social media use does a better job of filling your cup rather than emptying it.

And in some cases, you may find that you actually have little desire to return to social media after a fast. Despite whatever pressures you might feel to do so anyway, this isn’t necessarily the worst outcome (especially as we enter a newly-vaccinated America). As Dr. Manly says, “a break from social media can be a stark reminder that there is a wild and wonderful non-virtual world waiting to be explored.”

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