Social Media Is Ruining My Mental Health—Here’s What I’m Doing About It

"your clicks are your currency"
written by EMMA GINSBERG

I love the internet. When I was 13 years old, “OG” YouTubers had me laughing my way through middle school and connecting with my friends over each new vlog. During my freshman year of high school, discovering blogs and websites gave me a vision of what I wanted for my future; instead of thumbing through magazines, I scrolled through The Everygirl, feeding my dream of becoming a writer. When I was applying to colleges, I turned to college vloggers to learn the ropes of campus life. And last year, when I struggled to picture my life post-grad, I listened to podcast after podcast explaining the ins and outs of life in your 20s. The internet has guided me through every stage of adolescence and young adulthood, and I intend for it to be a part of my life forever.

I love the internet. But I do not love social media. Where articles, YouTube videos, and podcast episodes have shown me tangible stepping stones for creating a life that I love, social media has bombarded me with an endless flow of information that feels impossible to parse. Where dating and friendship apps have allowed me to make valuable—or at the very least entertaining—in-person connections, social media has left me isolated. And where Google itself has presented me with endless fascinating rabbit holes and a set of valuable research tools, social media has destroyed my attention span and algorithmically streamlined my interests.

At the same time, being present on social media of some form, especially as a participant in the digital marketplace, feels as basic as having a birth certificate. Though I am proud to say that I have officially started a career in journalism without being on the website formerly known as Twitter, maintaining my Instagram and LinkedIn for the sake of my profession feels necessary. I cannot be found if I am not seen. And at the end of the day, I do want to keep up with what my grandmother is posting on Facebook.

There are important reasons to stay on social media, like bearing witness to tragedy when it is happening before your eyes; there are also important reasons to get off of social media, like maintaining your attention span, real-life personal relationships, and career goals. For all of these reasons and more, I have been setting very strict boundaries around social media apps for the past three years. Setting those boundaries can feel challenging and sticky, especially when you were raised on the internet, and no one will let you forget that fact. So, in the spirit of fresh starts and divesting from the things that decrease our quality of life, here are some of the lessons I’ve learned from three years of weekly social media detoxing (and the details of how I detox).

“I love the internet. But I do not love social media.”

Quitting cold turkey is unsustainable—and unnecessary.

When I first started to consider divesting from social media in early 2021, I was surrounded by a lot of extreme advice. Some family members and friends advised me to delete my accounts and apps altogether; others were in the process of downsizing their accounts in favor of more exclusive finstas; even some wellness gurus I followed told me to mute as many people as possible.

All of these options felt way too intense to me, so I started small: I deleted Instagram for one week. When I redownloaded it again, I no longer felt the intense urge to scroll first thing in the morning. Ever since that week, I’ve been repeating the same ritual over and over: Instagram lives on my phone from Friday night to Sunday evening, and during the work week, I divert my attention to other things. I never downsized my account, I dared to experience TikTok, and I still lurk on the desktop versions of social media apps on occasion during the week.

By treating social media like the addictive platform it is, I healed my relationship with these apps. Much like I would prefer to have a glass of wine on a Friday night over a Wednesday, so would I prefer to scroll on Instagram on a Saturday morning over a Thursday. Within a few weeks of implementing this system, I felt my attention span improving. But had I quit cold turkey, I would have been rejecting social media as a necessary and very real part of everyday life, which to me would have been unsustainable. Moderation, rather than quitting, was key.

Lean into your own internet nostalgia.

To me, the “good old days” of media do not consist of anything physical outside of a laptop screen; I used to spend countless hours reading The Everygirl and websites like The Everygirl. Since social media has taken over our brains, people are getting their news from TikToks, and most of us spend our time scrolling rather than reading. But though social media has taken over, digital written media is still here. It’s also gotten better, as increasingly talented people are drawn towards creating on the internet.

I’ve leaned into my internet nostalgia, meaning I went back to the blogs and websites that always brought me joy when I reach for my phone in the mornings rather than checking DMs or scrolling through my FYP. It’s paid off: I’m consuming higher-quality ideas, expanding my attention span, and feeling infinitely more free to put my phone down when I need to do so.

Your clicks are your currency—spend them intentionally.

You know the saying “Health is wealth?” Well, in the attention economy, cognitive health is wealth, and long-form content is a kale salad. As a general rule of thumb, I have found that articles, podcast episodes, and YouTube videos (longer-form content) will always provide me with higher-value information than infographics, TikToks, and tweets. I have no reason to think critically when I see a post on social media because, seconds later, it will be replaced by a picture of someone’s dog.

The longer I have to take to digest something on the internet, or even the longer I have to wait for a post to go up or a page to refresh, the better—that means someone is working hard to create something good. Increasing my attention span with my online consumption makes me better prepared to shift my attention offline. It gives me the stamina to read good books—books like the one I dream of someday authoring. Just like “you are what you eat” in traditional wellness culture, you are also what you see and hear on the internet.

“In the attention economy, cognitive health is wealth, and long-form content is a kale salad.”

Pro-social social media exists, so use it.

In her 2010 essay “Generation Why,” Zadie Smith pondered whether by being on Facebook, we are all sort of digitally living inside the head of a 19-year-old white male Harvard student. While a lot has changed about Facebook, Instagram, and Mark Zuckerberg since 2010, there has been something about her words that rang eerily true for me in my most intense moments of social media addiction. As a lover of the girlies, I followed lots of women my age on Instagram and TikTok whom I saw as reflections of myself, almost potential friends. It wasn’t until I moved to an entirely new city all by myself that I realized that those relationships I had invested my attention into online were parasocial, not social. Those gals, talented and fabulous creators though they are, do not know or care who I am, and being obsessed with them was detracting from my ability to make and maintain IRL relationships.

By contrast, mechanisms like texting, email, phone calls, and FaceTime, in combination with pro-social apps like Bumble BFF and, yes, Hinge, have only made my existing and new relationships more fruitful. These are the truly social social media platforms. So, women in tech, if you’re reading this, the world needs you and the pro-social apps you are going to create that don’t encourage us to spend more time on our phones but to get off of them. And if you’re interested in divesting from social media, keep going—the grass, as they say, is worth touching.