Want to reclaim your focus and boost your mental health?

Five steps to improve your social media use from Bailey Parnell

These days, to quote best-selling author Johann Hari, I’m finding myself in a bit of an “attention crisis.”

I’m inundated with news, constantly checking for important updates about the pandemic and Ukraine. I’m leading my organization and trying to stay connected to family and friends while working remotely. I’m checking my phone, reading my email, “running” to a Zoom call, posting to Instagram, scrolling through TikTok and then… streaming Netflix at the end of the day.

It’s a common pattern. According to the New York Times, the typical American worker focuses on a given task for just three minutes. We also touch or check our phones more than 2,000 times a day and spend more than three hours daily staring at them (other studies have reported that teens spend as many as nine hours a day on social media).

Many people I’ve spoken to—my team members, family and friends—echo my thoughts. They’re tired, stressed, and looking for ways to improve their focus while boosting their mental health and that of their kids and team members.

For ideas, I turned to Bailey Parnell, the Founder & CEO of SkillsCamp and Founder & Researcher at #SafeSocial. At an event last week, Bailey shared insights about our use of social media, the effects it has on us and how we can develop better habits when using it.

We’re more distracted, lonelier and addicted: Six known risks of using social media

  1. We’re more distracted and less productive: You’re trying to work or study but find yourself checking Instagram. Why? Notifications are intentionally designed to keep you checking.
  2. We’re more sedentary: We’re likely sitting when we use social media, displacing healthier activities like exercise, walks in the park and engaging in person with our family.
  3. We’re lonelier: We’re supposed to be more connected than ever but are also lonelier than we’ve ever felt.
  4. We’re seeing higher rates of anxiety and depression: When the micro-moments of using social media (each post, like, comment, etc.) become macro-problems (feeling left out, lonely, inferior, etc.), we feel more anxious and depressed.
  5. We have more FOMO (fear of missing out): The more you feel left out, the higher your risk of being addicted to social media and suffering from social anxiety.
  6. We’re addicted: Social media use is addictive and particularly risky for young people (puberty to age 25) whose brains are still developing.

To see if you or someone you know is addicted to social media, take Bailey’s free online quiz.

Five steps to improve your social media use (#SafeSocial)

Most of us can’t quit social media altogether—we use it for work or to stay connected with friends or family. Bailey outlined five steps we can all take to use it safely:

  1. Build awareness and understanding: Learn as much as you can about social media, its risks and how to mitigate them. Determine what stresses you out so you can design a feed that works for you.
  2. Modify your consumption: Stop following sources/people who make you feel your life doesn’t cut it (upward social comparison). Ask yourself: Am I doing this because I need it or want it? Do I consume things I enjoy or am I “just drinking to get drunk”? Am I being peer pressured? Is it harming my relationships?
    • If you answered yes to any of these questions, here are some tips to try:
      • Scroll mindfully: Put a physical elastic band around your phone to prevent yourself from mindless scrolling.
      • Use screen time apps to measure how much time you’re spending on your phone.
      • Block notifications:  Apps like Apple’s Focus Mode block notifications during specific periods, like when you’re working or studying.
      • Do a digital detox: Try spending the weekend without your phone or set specific periods when your phone is locked away (during work, mealtime, when watching Netflix, etc.).
      • Prioritize your offline life: Spend more time “IRL” with friends and family, when possible. Get outside without your phone.
      • Move app icons from your home screen: E.g., Move Instagram off the home page so its use is more intentional.
  3. Ensure your offline life is healthy: The same piece of content can affect you differently based on how you are feeling at the precise time when you read it. The most important thing you can do, therefore, is to make sure your offline life is healthy.
  4. Model good behaviour / lead by example: People, especially young people, are looking to you to define what is good when it comes to social media use. Are you on your phone during dinner? Are you posting toxic content? Be a good online citizen.
  5. Hold responsible parties accountable: Ask: Can governments do more? How about social media companies and educational institutions? We are all responsible for modelling good behaviour.

#SafeSocial in the workplace

As many of us continue to work remotely, we often turn to social media to stay connected and stave off loneliness. How can we manage it more effectively, so we can stay productive and engaged at work?

  1. Manage your attention to maximize your focus. Just as you need to manage your time and monitor your productivity at work, you also need to ensure you’re paying attention to work while at work. Don’t let Instagram tell you what’s important!
  2. Treat social media in the same way you would drugs or alcohol. You wouldn’t take drugs or drink alcohol at work, so you likewise shouldn’t use social media for personal reasons while at work. Separate your work time and personal time.
  3. You can’t switch off stress when you go to work. If social media stresses you out in your personal life, you’re going to bring that stress with you to work (i.e., it will impact your time management, focus, engagement). You need to address it in your personal life.
  4. Pause notifications that don’t serve work. If you’re at your desk, you don’t need email notifications on your phone, too.

Advice for parents?

Bailey shared all kinds of resources for parents of kids and teens, including how to have “the talk” about social media and how to set rules for each age group. First things first: educate yourself as a parent about social media and its risks

Bottom line: Does social media hurt our mental health?

It doesn’t have to. Bailey thinks that if we all learn to practise #safesocial, we can get the benefits out of social media (staying connected and informed) without risking our mental health.

I think it’s also important to channel our JOMO—the Joy of Missing Out—and be more joyful about what we have and celebrate others.

Connect with Bailey

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