If you’ve ever come away from Facebook anxious over a heated political exchange or feeling like drowning your FOMO in a pint of ice cream, you’re in good company. The time we spend scrolling on social media can have a profound effect on our wellness—both mental and physical. In fact, research has shown that time on social media can cause an uptick in depression, anxiety, and psychological distress, especially in younger people. Other studies, meanwhile, have found that our experience on social networks could contribute to weight gain, increase feelings of loneliness, or even become an addiction.
So is it all doom and gloom, or is there hope that someday checking your Instagram feed could actually improve your wellbeing? Fortunately, social media use doesn’t have to spell a downward spiral for your health. Done right, the time you spend on these apps can actually help you live a more fulfilled, joyful, and (yes!) healthy lifestyle.
Wondering how to set boundaries and use social media to live your best life? Read on for five pro tips.
1. Unfollow, Unfollow, Unfollow
You know who they are—the people on your social channels who constantly create inflammatory posts, stir up conflict, or simply rub you the wrong way. Continual exposure to negative interactions and distressing messages isn’t exactly a mental health booster, and luckily you are in no way obligated to keep the negativity in your feed.
“Curating your social media feed is a simple way to boost your mental wellness,” says psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D. “Simply unfollow the people who bring you down. It is your choice who you follow and who you do not follow.” So repeat after us: I will use the unfollow button! Remember that you don’t owe anyone a following on social media—and your mental health comes first, always.
Read More: 7 Mental Health Myths, Debunked by Experts
The results of sticking with the people who lift you up when you scroll may surprise you. A 2021 study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology found that when people felt they received social and emotional support from their social media community, their usage had an overall positive impact on their psychological wellbeing. (So it is possible!)
2. Follow Realistic Health Influencers
Image-based platforms like Instagram and TikTok are notorious for showing us visuals of chiseled abs and colorful meals featuring the perfect ratio of macros. While we might think these idealized images will inspire us to make healthier choices in real life, that’s not always the case. Instead, research shows they actually often feed unhealthy perfectionism or even promote orthorexia, an eating disorder characterized by an obsessive fixation on “clean” eating.
Rather than follow health influencers with nary a flaw, look for those who keep it real. “It is vital that you follow those who inspire you towards a healthier life, rather than depress you with unattainable perfection,” says Lombardo.
3. Pause Before Posting
Social media’s effect on your health isn’t just about what you take in; it’s also about what you put out there. Yes, your own posts may be inadvertently causing you distress. Skeptical? Consider the following: Have you ever posted something you knew could cause a messy argument? Or engaged in “vaguebooking” (the practice of creating unclear but alarming posts to draw attention)?
Perhaps it’s time to examine your motivations with a gut check. “Before you post something on social media, it’s important to ask yourself why you are posting this and what might happen as a result,” Lombardo says. “For example, are you in the psychological Red Zone, in which your distress is at a seven out of 10 or higher? In this state, we don’t always think rationally or act rationally.”
If you would rate your stress or emotionality at a seven or higher, Lombardo recommends holding off on posting until you cool off and your emotions feel more manageable.
Meanwhile, if you find yourself issuing vague cries for help on social media, it’s probably time to reach out for professional mental health assistance. According to a 2017 study in Psychiatric Quarterly, vaguebooking was associated with suicidal ideation. Self-compassion and reflection here can make all the difference.
4. Limit Your Scrolling with an App or Timer
Ever glance at the time and realize with horror that 20 minutes have just evaporated while you scrolled? It’s all too easy to end up glued to your devices for hours on end—but it’s not doing your health any favors. One 2018 New Media and Society study found that the more minutes people spent on social media, the lower they rated the quality of their day. And, according to 2017 research, adults who spent six hours or more per day on screens were more likely to have depression.
If you tend to lose track of time on social media, consider installing an app that helps you set limits, such as Offtime or StayFree. Different apps keep track of your total time or lock you out when you’ve reached your max, providing the built-in accountability many of us need these days. “Setting a timer will help you focus on the content that feels positive without getting lost in the never-ending posts,” Lombardo says.
5. Practice Social Media Fasting
Even though time on social media, when done well, could improve your health, it’s still smart to take breaks here and there. In fact, stepping back might benefit your physical health as well as your emotional wellbeing. In fact, that New Media and Society study mentioned earlier found that when people took a break from scrolling, they engaged more in activities like childcare and household chores. (Heck, a break from social media might be just what you need to finally find time for that workout.)
A hiatus also allows you to assess how social media is serving you—and the role you’d like it to play in your life. Consider turning off notifications (or just not logging in) on weekends, after a certain hour in the evenings, or even for a week or more at a time. Extended time offline may be the reboot you need for healthier usage.