At this point, we all know that social media is making us unwell. We know it is jeopardizing mental health, democracy, social progress, and our collective ability to focus. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time discussing these trends, but not as much time discussing solutions. So, what can we do about it?
(A clarification: when I say “social media” in this post, I am referring to the 3 primary platforms: Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. I am not referring to social media as a whole – just social media that wrecks our brains.)
Unfortunately, there is a ceiling to what individuals can do to effect systemic change. The ultimate responsibility for the harm caused by social media lies with the corporations themselves, not the individuals using their platform. But there are things we can do on and off the platforms to resist the distorting, godlike power of the social media companies. Despite their awesome power, we can’t roll over and let the technocratic demiurges win. I have enacted several rules for myself while engaging with social media, and you are welcome to adopt them.
This article uses “you” language for the sake of style, but keep in mind that these are my rules. This article might come off as uncharacteristically direct, and if you find yourself wincing at my words, remember that I am speaking mostly to myself. You can modify them, adopt them, or discard them altogether.
1: Get social media off your phone and protect it with a complicated handwritten password
This is the rule that has single-handedly transformed my life. I am a raging social media addict, and all the typical advice for curbing compulsive social media use just doesn’t work on me. Set blocker apps on my phone so I won’t be distracted by social media? I will just disable the blocker in settings and then go on a bender. Take the Twitter app off my phone completely? I will just access it in the phone browser or on my laptop when I should be working. Set time limits for social media use? Fuck time limits. I will happily sit in my office and refresh twitter for four hours straight (no, really.)
If you find yourself being a hardcore addict like me, here is what you will do: go to an online password generator and create a long, complicated password. Write that down on a piece of paper. Change your social media password to this long one, and do not store it digitally. Keep this piece of paper in your desk at home.
Whenever you want to go on social media, you must sit down and copy this long, laborious password to login. You will only do this when you really need to or want to. Now, you can start to enact healthy rules for social media use.
If social media is obvious, easy, and always just within reach, you will waste your life. Life is made up of tiny moments towards which we can be present, or not. A single moment of compulsively reaching for Twitter instead of a book, a friend, a partner, or our own interior thoughts is insignificant on its own. A lifetime of thousands upon thousands of moments given to social media is a dimmed, destitute life. I naturally start falling down this road if I don’t set hard boundaries with social media, and I suspect you do, too.
2. If you find yourself needing to block people often, you are spending too much time on social media
This one comes with a massive caveat: the internet is full of disgusting people who should be blocked. Minorities and women are far more likely to suffer abuse, and they need to protect themselves. The guy who told me I should commit suicide because I’m gay got blocked. Virulent transphobes who say demeaning, violent, or hurtful things against trans people in my community get blocked. If you are a minority, take my words in this section with a gigantic grain of salt — under no circumstances do I want you to jeopardize your wellbeing.
If, however, you find yourself handing out blocks like candy because the line between disagreement and harassment is emotionally indistinguishable, you are spending too much time online. This doesn’t mean your hurt isn’t genuine or that you are a weak, broken person. Instead, it means you are being isolated, hacked, and studied by the algorithms and pushed into your own hellish, tiny panopticon. The hurt you feel will continue to intensify, and blocking won’t do anything to reduce your pain. Only logging out and refusing to be a psychic lab rat will improve your quality of life. Blocking is a toy given to us by the tech gods to give us just enough control to keep us logged in even if our mental health is deteriorating.
Everyone must determine the line between disagreement and harassment for themselves. Someone telling me I’m a faggot who should kill myself is a harasser and gets blocked. Someone telling me they strongly disagree with my views on abortion, gay marriage, or capitalism is not, to me, a bully. Someone voicing their sincerely held belief that I am wrong about something is not harassing me. For you, given your personal history, it might be. Only you can decide.
The key is this: do you find yourself regularly getting upset, enraged, or depressed on social media? Do you find yourself trying to mitigate these feelings by blocking regularly? That’s a sign that you are too deep into the laboratory, and that the best thing you can do for your mental health is log out.
There’s also the fact that blocking has been weaponized. If you block someone for voicing a disagreement, they will screenshot the block and do a victory lap all over the internet. I prefer to not give them the satisfaction.
3. If you are spending more time on social media than on long form media, your mind is in jeopardy
If you find yourself spending more time on social media than on long-form media like books, articles, films, and podcasts, you will find yourself in the same position of doctoral student Philip Davis in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows: “I read a lot—or at least I should be reading a lot—only I don’t. I skim. I scroll. I have very little patience for long, drawn-out, nuanced arguments, even though I accuse others of painting the world too simply.”
When we lose the capacity to engage in long-form focus, all the best things in life pass us by. Enriching relationships, satisfying careers, diverting hobbies, deep thought, and even the formation of identity requires long-form focus. If we let the muscle of focus atrophy through the endless onslaught of bite-sized information, we put our minds and well-being in peril.
Carr pauses on one particular description of reading that I find incredibly moving, especially in our age of constant distraction:
Even the earliest silent readers recognized the striking change in their consciousness that took place as they immersed themselves in the pages of a book. The medieval bishop Isaac of Syria described how, whenever he read to himself, “as in a dream, I enter a state when my sense and thoughts are concentrated. Then, when with prolonging of this silence the turmoil of memories is stilled in my heart, ceaseless waves of joy are sent me by inner thoughts, beyond expectation suddenly arising to delight my heart.” Reading a book was a meditative act, but it didn’t involve a clearing of the mind. It involved a filling, or replenishing, of the mind. Readers disengaged their attention from the outward flow of passing stimuli in order to engage it more deeply with an inward flow of words, ideas, and emotions. That was—and is—the essence of the unique mental process of deep reading. It was the technology of the book that made this “strange anomaly” in our psychological history possible. The brain of the book reader was more than a literate brain. It was a literary brain.
You rob yourself of this deep, abundant joy when you spend more time with social media than long-form media. Use a timer to track how much time you spend on social media vs. time engaged with books, film, articles, podcasts, and other immersive activities. If the scale tips towards social media, you are being robbed.
4. Hot takes and substantive conversation don’t belong on social media
Too often, I see hot takes, clarifications, and attempts at substantive conversation taking place on social media. I cannot imagine a more denigrating context for such important conversation. The disaster is multilayered: using social media as an outlet for important conversation is submitting your thoughts to the distorting, outraging cycles of the algorithms. Whatever you mean to say will be distorted, and an opportunity for collective growth will likely turn into all-out war. It also robs you of the opportunity to write or speak clearly, and therefore sharpening your own mind, because true depth and clarity is impossible on social media (I will never be talked down from this soapbox.)
To quote The Elements of Style by Strunk and White,
As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts – which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward. Fortunately, the act of composition, or creation, disciplines the mind; writing is one way to go about thinking, and the practice and habit of writing not only drain the mind but supply it, too.
Social media stunts the almost magical process of organizing your mind through a creative act. If you have something important, meaningful, controversial, or beautiful to say that deserves serious engagement, don’t say it on social media, no matter how much attention it might get or how good it might feel. Instead, write it, blog it, or record it as a podcast or video. If you must, tweet that instead. Don’t squander your thoughts on social media.
5. Redirect yourself and others to healthier forms of online connection
I love the internet, probably because it saved my life. When I was coming out of the closet in my late teens, discovering the LGBT community online rescued me from the horrific loneliness of being gay in the conservative world. I met friends in those early days who are still in my life. Now, I am part of a flourishing online community on discord servers, private websites, and chat threads. I’m not opposed to social media, just social media that destroys us.
Redirect your focus from toxic social media like twitter, facebook, and Instagram, and towards healthier online communities. Discord servers, chat threads, watch parties, video rooms, and blogs aren’t perfect, but they are better. Connecting on the internet is a beautiful thing, and we don’t have to give it up because the biggest platforms are monsters.
But that’s just me. What do you think? Let me know your thoughts by leaving a comment below or writing me an email. If your comment is excellent, I might feature it in my monthly Best Comments series. You can also become a patron and ensure that I bring you interesting content every single week, forever. And by the way, most discussion of my posts takes place on my discord server, and I invite you to join in the conversation there.