How to use social media to like yourself again

Holly Elmore suffers from depression. Last year, when she felt consumed by negative feelings, she found a way to improve her mood and stave off the worst of her illness: looking at her own Instagram feed. Like many social sharers, her account was a collection of positive, self-promoting snaps, a helpful reminder that there was plenty in her life to feel good about. “It’s like a gratitude journal,” she explained.

How to use social media to like yourself again

It’s anecdotal evidence that social media can make you happy, but it runs contrary to headlines that shout that Facebook et al are making us lonely, depressed, jealous and anxious. While there’s plenty of academic research to back up the claim that social media is bad for your mental wellbeing, don’t delete your accounts quite yet.

For some people, social media, the wider internet and smartphone apps can boost happiness and improve mental health conditions. Like any digital tool, it’s how you use it. Scrolling through an ex-partner’s holiday snaps with their attractive new partner is naturally going to wipe the smile from your face; focusing on the good things in your life – not those of others – is the key.

Social sites have been designed to drag us back for more, but with careful use they can make us happy, rather than cloud our minds with anxiety, negative feelings and worse. One caveat: there’s a big difference between feeling down and clinical depression – while Elmore did find that scrolling through her Instagram account helped during an outbreak of her mental illness, she still required treatment from professionals.

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The black dog of social media

Academics aren’t social media fans. Several research papers published this year have suggested social media makes users feel “socially isolated” after just half an hour of use (The American Journal of Preventive Medicine), destroys body image and self-esteem (New Media & Society), and revealed an association between the amount of social media ingested and likeliness of suffering depression (“Computers in Human Behaviour”, published on ScienceDirect). A poll by the Royal Society for Public Health revealed four of the five most popular social networks caused teenagers to feel inadequate and anxious. For those who gleefully follow Instagram accounts of kitten videos, joyfully retweet Twitter feeds of “wholesome” memes, and swoon at their friends and family’s adventures on Facebook, that may come as a surprise.

Robert Kraut, professor of human-computer interaction at Carnegie Mellon University, is one of the researchers who has contributed to the flood of stories warning about social media’s impact on our mental health, having worked in the field for more than a decade. According to Kraut, while comprehensive reviews of the research suggest that social media is bad news for our wellbeing, such studies often have “fatal flaws” in their methodology – they fail to take into account how someone felt beforehand or what they do online. “My take is that we shouldn’t trust it until we have some better measures, some better kind of research,” he said. In the meantime, there’s a better way to use your social networks.

The right way to use social media

Kraut’s research suggests there are two main ways to use social media and the wider internet, and he believes one will leave you feeling anxious and unhappy, while the other will boost your mood.

The first is scrolling through feeds of people you barely know, tapping “like” now and then as your only form of interaction. “That tends to be associated with making you feel bad, because you’re not as happy and doing all the good things that these other people are doing,” Kraut explained.

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The second way to use social media requires more effort: producing content yourself and genuinely interacting. That may sound like hard work, but with social media it merely means posting your own photos or stories, and sending messages to people you already know. That way of using social media doesn’t appear to have the negative effects on our happiness, and according to Kraut’s own research, may be “associated with improvements in wellbeing” over longer periods of time.

At the centre of such benefits is “substantive communication”, which Kraut described as exchanging words or pictures with someone. “That kind of behaviour is associated with improvements in various measures of wellbeing – less loneliness, less stress, less depression, a more positive mood,” he said.

However, there’s no benefit to communicating with people you don’t feel close to. If you’re merely “viewing other people’s productions, the good effects aren’t there,” he said. Likewise for “exchanging minimalist communication such as ‘likes’.”

Don’t let the algorithms get you down. Instead, focus your creative output by setting a target, such as #100happydays. You may have spotted this hashtag on your feeds – alongside the ubiquitous #blessed – and the idea is simple: snap a photo of something that makes you feel happy and post it once a day. It’s the modern equivalent of a gratitude journal. And don’t be afraid to focus on yourself: research from the University of California suggests snapping selfies and sharing them makes you feel happier, as well as more comfortable and more confident.

Edit your input, too, by paring down your friends list or editing who you follow. The average Facebook friend count is 338, according to the Pew Research Center. “And yet, you’re only able to keep close ties to in the order of 30 or 40 people,” Kraut said. “You might want to selectively prune your list so that you’re not being tempted to look at stuff that you really don’t care about.”

If you don’t want to outright cull followers, consider tweaking your settings so you only see messages from people you’ll actually want to interact with. You need not unfriend every third-cousin and casual acquaintance. Simply click on the icon at the top right of a Facebook post, and you’ll see an option to “Unfollow” the friend – you’ll stay “friends”, but they won’t appear in your feed.

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Selective behaviour

Consider removing news sources that can engender anxiety and add those that give you a smile. If you get your daily news from an app, website or newspaper (you traditionalist), perhaps you don’t need breaking reports of North Korean nuclear armageddon or terrifying monster storms shoved in your face, and would instead prefer to merely scan the sports results. Pay attention to how your Twitter, Instagram and other social feeds make you feel, and edit them in your favour.

Kraut offers a caveat, though. “I’m not suggesting that people should not follow the news. There’s lots of other things besides personal wellbeing that you might use these social media sites for. And one of them is to keep informed,” he said. “While finding out what’s going to happen in North Korea might not make you feel good, you might feel a civic responsibility for keeping up on that stuff for other reasons.”

Social media platforms could do more to help those with mental illness. Facebook helped a little in 2016 when it switched its algorithm to focus on friends and family rather than brands, while Munmun De Choudhury, assistant professor in the school of interactive computing at Georgia Tech, notes that Tumblr keeps tabs on search terms in a good way. “If you search for any depression-related word, it will point you to a page which has information on getting help.”

Beyond that, she would like to make it easier for people to share their social media with mental-health clinicians. “This kind of data could be useful to clinicians,” she noted, stressing patient consent would be required. “They could build applications to share patient information with their clinician, that could really help clinicians being more informed about what’s going on in their life.”

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Follow for happiness

The networks we build on social media – whether it’s staying connected to friends and family or finding like-minded people for support – can boost your mood and support structure. Remember that research showing social sites were messing with teenagers’ heads? It also found that 70% of respondents received emotional support on social media when “times were tough”. And when we’re happy online, we make our friends happy, too – research from Facebook and Cornell University suggested emotions are contagious across the social network.

“When we’re happy online, we make our friends happy, too”

One simple mood-lifter is to follow positive feeds. Emily Reynolds is the author of A Beginner’s Guide to Losing Your Mind, and she’s behind a Twitter account called @everydaycarebot. While most bots – which churn out automated replies and messages – are employed to amuse, irritate, troll or elect a president, Reynolds has built a self-care bot. Every few hours, it tweets something to do to help followers take care of themselves and feel grounded, from “sit up straighter” to “spend five minutes wiping down your kitchen counters”.

“The initial idea came from problems I’d had – struggling to look after myself when I’m ill, and having to actively remind myself to do things like open windows or change the sheets or wash my face,” Reynolds told Alphr. “Obviously, I then had to remember to remind myself, so more often than not, none of that stuff ended up getting done. I thought having something that prompted me to do those things – and also be more thoughtful about what ‘self-care’ actually was to me – would be really useful, so I decided to make the bot.”

Other self-care bots will tell followers to find ways to relax, such as taking a bath or watching TV, but from her own experience with mental health issues, Reynolds knows it’s the boring, day-to-day tasks that become difficult when a person is struggling. “Paying bills, for example, isn’t a remotely fun thing to do. It is necessary, though, and I wanted to help people keep on top of those things, too,” she said.

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Such feeds can also help find people struggling with the same issues. “I think the biggest impact social media has had on people with mental health problems is simply the basic community it provides,” Reynolds said. “Often it’s not even active peer support networks that help – it’s just knowing that people know what you’re going through. People with mental health problems often expend a lot of emotional energy explaining their conditions to the people around them and advising them on how they can help, and I think social media’s biggest benefit is that it alleviates a lot of that emotional labour. People get it.”

If you’re not a Twitter user, there are plenty of other feeds and apps to help. “Something incredibly simple I use that’s made a really big difference is just basic habit-tracking apps,” Reynolds said. “It’s a similar principle to the self-care bot, really – I have a problem doing certain things or keeping certain good (or necessary to survive) habits, and these remind me. They’re not particularly exciting or glitzy, but then neither is being mentally ill.”

Positivity training

Alongside the negative effects on mental health, one of the frequent criticisms of social media is everyone only shows the good side of their life, focusing only on the positive. The argument being that other people’s happiness or success makes us feel jealous and insecure.

But perhaps we should welcome the positivity, noted Elmore. Her Instagram feed’s laser focus on the good times is what helped her avoid spiralling into negative thoughts during her last bout of depression. Instagram et al are no different than photo albums, aside from the fact many social collections are publicly viewable, and Open University research suggests looking through personal photo albums makes us feel happier than other pick-me-ups such as chocolate, booze or TV.

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“When I would think of my memories over the last two years, I would always go to negative things – my life is so bad and I was depressed,” she explained. “But seeing a record of things I’d chosen to share on social media… none of them were lies, but the overall gestalt of it was quite different than if I had just been reflecting on it myself. I realised there were a lot of positive moments, too.”

That’s what made her social media feel like a gratitude journal – a helpful way to look back and see that your recollection of your life is skewed by your current mood, and realise that things are better than you feel. “It’s a positive side of your life,” she said.

And since when is being positive a bad thing? “‘Be positive’ is the kind of advice you get on every other arena of your life, except for social media.”

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