Social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram have long since stopped being the sole domain of the young. More than half of the people in a 2018 survey, regardless of age, said they could not go a day without using platforms like these.
This is not always a bad thing. Social media can provide opportunities to reunite with long-lost friends and relatives, meet potential romantic partners, stay connected to casual acquaintances – all from the comfort of your living room couch.
But it can become a problem if you never leave your couch to connect with other human beings in real life. In-person interaction is key to our well-being and most people don’t do well without it, says Elisabeth Netherton, MD, and psychiatrist at Mindpath Health.
Beyond that, if you spend too much time on social media, you risk giving up a huge chunk of your time, attention, and energy for very little return in terms of your quality of life, Netherton says.
In some cases, it can even start to chip away at your sense of emotional well-being.
It can make us feel bad when we forget that our friends’ feeds are often more “highlight reel” than real life, Netherton says. Seeing “where everybody’s on vacation and things that look really rosy,” makes it easy to fall into the comparison trap, especially if your social connections are weak.
Still, with care and attention, Netherton says, you can use social media to enrich rather than weaken your social connections. You simply need to pay attention to the way you use social media and the time you spend on it.
How Much Social Media Time?
It’s no secret that social media can gobble up huge blocks of time. You can lose hours a day just trying to keep up with what other people are doing and saying.
Studies have shown that more time on social media can lower mood and increase mental health issues.
There is a simple solution: Try to limit your time online. A 2018 study found that people who limited social media use to 30 minutes a day appeared to gain “significant improvement in well-being” and reduction in loneliness and depression compared with their peers who used social media as much as they wanted.
There are numerous apps that can help you do this by tracking your usage and even shutting off access to certain social media apps after a certain amount of time.
What Should You Do on Social Media?
Research shows that it’s not just the amount of time you spend on social media that makes the difference, it’s how you use that time.
“Most of us can relate to sitting down at night after the kids go to bed, and just scrolling. Just scrolling Instagram, scrolling TikTok, and feeling crummier about themselves when they finish than they did when they started,” Netherton says.
This is what scientists call “passive social media use” – endless scrolling without posting or making plans with people you know. It can lower your sense of well-being.
Older people may be more vulnerable to these issues than younger people, Netherton says,
“I think there are a lot of younger people who grew up with social media who have reached the point of really trying to disconnect from it,” she says. That’s less the case with older users, Netherton says, and it continues to take a toll.
According to a 2019 study, older adults who showed signs of “problematic social media use” (as measured by the BSMAS addiction scale) were more likely to feel more lonely, no matter how much time they spent on social media.
But different use of social media can have different effects.
One healthy way to use social media is to use it to strengthen casual connections with people you see, at least now and then, in person, says Lisa D’Ambrosio, PhD, a research scientist at MIT’s AgeLab.
For example, you can use Facebook, Instagram, and even text messaging to send memes or thoughts to someone who you may not be able to see for a while.
This can be especially helpful for older adults, D’Ambrosio says. Older adults who don’t get out as much may feel more connected to their families and their communities through social media. If they can see and comment on pictures of children and grandchildren or connect with others around shared interests, it can help keep isolation at bay, she says.
But these types of online interactions should help nurture in-person relationships, not replace them, D’Ambrosio says.
How Can You Build a Healthy Relationship With Social Media?
Healthy social media interaction can also happen in more unexpected ways. For example, when Karen Arrington, 62, posted about her dad’s death on Facebook, roughly 400 people sent her messages of support and sympathy. Many sent flowers and food gifts as well, says Arrington, a success coach in Marlboro, MD.
It really made a difference as she worked through her grief, she says. “It was really inspiring to know that there are people out there who just really care.”
Arrington tries to avoid the pitfalls of social media by carefully curating what she sees.
Anything that appears to be negative, I unfollow,” she says. That means she can remain friends with someone without having their posts appear in her newsfeed. She also creates specific lists to customize her experience even further.
For instance, when she wants to feel uplifted, she clicks on a list of people whose posts inspire her. (You can learn how to create specific lists of your on Facebook.com.)
Of course, each person is different and what works for one person may not work for another. But there are some general guidelines that may help you build a healthy relationship with social media:
- Be intentional: A set of general questions can serve as a good starting point, says Netherton: “What matters to me? Where do I want to be active with my time? What feels meaningful and purposeful?” And remember, she says, the goal of healthy social media use is to strengthen your in-person relationships, not weaken them.
- Check in with yourself: Ask yourself how you feel after using social media. Are you having FOMO because you feel like everyone is having fun without you? Or do you feel excited to join a new online community or conversation? If you relate more to the former than the latter, it may be time to cut back on your social media use, Netherton says.
- Look at your calendar: “Look at how you’re spending your time,” Netherton says. Have you made regular plans for in-person interaction? Your social media use should never be a replacement for real-life interactions with friends and family. If you’re spending more time with your phone than your friends, consider making plans to meet up.
- Use social media to meet people: If you’ve recently relocated or just want to expand your social circle, you can use your online social networks to find in-person events. Netherton suggests using resources including Facebook, NextDoor, and Meetup to find groups who share your political beliefs, hobbies, or faith.
- Get help with technology: If you’re older and less handy with technology, reach out to younger friends and family who may be able to help you navigate new social media platforms. It may be easier than you think. Some apps are even able to address problems with hearing or vision. Other apps may specialize in helping older people socialize with each other in a friendly or even romantic way.