How I Cured My Social Media Blues Without Unplugging

Put self-esteem-crushing media in its place.
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Emily Mae Schmid
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Put self-esteem-crushing media in its place.

Last week’s New York Magazine featured a cover story by Andrew Sullivan on the human side of technology addiction. In it Sullivan confesses to being “a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web,” but what he describes is something that not only prolific writers like Sullivan experience. “Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone—connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once.... It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating.”

Never stopping. Always updating. The extreme extrovert in me truly loves this quintessentially social part of social media. It wasn’t long after college that I decided to jump into the fast-paced world of tweets and trends to build not only a career of it, but also my own online presence. I loved how Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat connected me to the whole world. Every day—nay, every minute—there was something new and exciting I couldn’t miss. 

At first, I was able to balance my over-consumption with activities that took me away from my phone. Then, I began working full-time as a social media manager. Yes, that means that for thirty to thirty-five hours a week, I am on Facebook for work. On top of that, I continued to use social media to “get away” from work, because that was the routine I had developed. All of this probably added up to fifty hours a week spent digitally connected. 

You know when you feel the ugly combination of overworked while at the same time less productive? That's what my social media-filled life was starting to feel like. I thought it was working full-time on my computer that was stressing me out, but I couldn’t find a way to put it down. I would end up on my computer from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. every single day, but barely got forty hours of work done each week.

I was in a downward spiral, and it became hard for me to relax.

One day, my fiancé called me out. He had had just about enough of me being on my phone all the time (phubbing is so real) and always finding a reason to do thirty more minutes of work to the constant complaint that my work “wasn’t enough.” All this quickly translated to overall discontent with my life. My usual high self-esteem had dipped, and for the first time ever I began to complain that I wasn’t skinny enough. On a daily basis I suffered from FOMO and body-image insecurities. I was, as Sullivan coined it, “living in the web,” but not so much in my real life. Luckily, I had someone near and dear to me who was able to intervene with some tough love and a wake-up call.

As it turns out, I am not alone. Research published last year found a correlation between social media use and depressive symptoms. “We found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression,” Margaret Duffy, a professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, said. “Facebook can be a very positive resource for many people, but if it is used as a way to size up one’s own accomplishments against others, it can have a negative effect."

I became determined to maximize the positive effect, while minimizing the negative. We hear a lot about the benefits of “unplugging,” but the reality is that most of us have a hard time doing that. In my case, it wasn't just unrealistic for my habits—considering my line of work “unplugging” is essentially impossible. Ultimately I realized that instead of unplugging I needed to learn how to balance my online life with time that allowed me to relax—both on- and offline.

First, I took a quick, unofficial inventory of how I was spending my non-work time online. Who did I follow? What pages did I like? I realized that what was coming into my feed was a whole lot of content I didn’t really want to be seeing. I was a victim of my own habits—my “liking” trends on Instagram and Facebook were surfacing more of that kind of content, but it wasn't necessarily what I needed to be seeing. Of course you can’t avoid offending media completely, but you do need to know how to prioritize the good stuff. Kim K. is going to creep into your newsfeed once in awhile, but so, perhaps, is a Verily Daily Dose

Part of the problem is that social media outlets like Facebook and Instagram, which serve us more content that we "like," can skew how we view the world, instead of helping us be better.

After my “inventory” revealed some unhelpful additives and preservatives in my social-media diet, so to speak, I unfollowed a lot of negative people and unliked a lot of pages. Then, I used the handy “see first” tool on Facebook to carefully select who and what I wanted to be the first posts I would see in my newsfeed. I found magazines and wellness blogs that truly spoke to the person I am and the person I want to be. I want my dress to be stylish but also modest; I want to be in the know of cultural commentary that neither regurgitates mainstream media nor gets depressed by it. As a person I want to be authentic, beautiful, and intentional in what I do...and I want my media consumption to reflect that. Now my style inspiration comes from bloggers who fit my body type, and my body-confidence is almost back to where it used to be. I found wellness blogs that focus on health rather than appearance, and I’m feeling more energetic again. I’m choosing #fitspo over #thinspo, #WednesdayWisdom over #wcw, and I’ve never been happier.

I also swapped my morning dive into social media with an app to give me inspiration as I start my day. It’s amazing how a 30-second reading and a two minute reflection can change your entire day. I think I notice it most when I have positive moment in my day and I can think back to my early-morning visualization on how I wanted my day to go. It helps re-center me, keeps me focused on my goals and on what is really important. At night, I am able to reflect on my day in a calm way that helps me process how it went, rather than anxiously scrolling through Twitter for a distraction from work. I can honestly report that falling asleep has become so much easier since I began this routine.

Finally, I became aware of the media I was consuming beyond my laptop and phone. When I need to do mindless activities like straighten my hair or fold laundry, I started tuning into a health & wellness or spiritual podcast instead of turning on the TV. When I do watch TV, instead of letting myself soak in the commercials, I’ll get up to get a glass of water or do a plank on the ground—anything that takes my mind and body away from the television screen for a minute or two. Social media (or even watching TV) is no longer an activity to "zone out" and absorb whatever's thrown at me. 

It feels empowering to reclaim the choice of what I consume. I was able to create authentic, leisurely moments throughout my week that resulted in decreased anxiety and an increase in appreciation for each moment. I have been amazed to see how making these simple substitutions can lead to a completely changed mindset. 

One unexpected thing that came out of my “conscious consumption” is “conscious posting.” Now that I am so much more aware of how I spend time on social media, I am paying better attention to what I am putting out there. As they say, you are the average of the company you keep. Now my friends and followers will see far more inspirational quotes, pretty pictures, thought-provoking articles, and invitations to local events—likely a welcome replacement to celebrity commentary or complaints about daily life. I want my social media presence to be authentic but intentional.

It’s never easy to break a bad habit that is intertwined with daily life. With so much media today being as hypersexualized, trend-driven, and nearly unavoidable as it is, I'm glad I put it in its proper place. 

Photo Credit: Death to the Stock Photo