It’s not uncommon in my therapy office to talk about social media. Specifically, I’ve been having a lot of conversations about wanting to not be on social media but having a hard time stopping.
When people bring up the topic of their social media use, it’s usually said with a bit of a guilty look, and can come across as a shrug off comment. “I really shouldn’t be using my phone so much,” they might say in an off-hand way. But, since people are paying me money to notice things, I don’t just shrug it off. Instead, I invite them to talk about it. So many of my clients are finding that they’re on social media more than they actually want to be, and that it’s causing upset in their lives. These are some of the things we’ve been talking about in those conversations.
1. Getting clearer on what is it about our social media use that we don’t like.
Sometimes in having this conversation, we realize we're actually okay with our social media use. But 95% of the time we can easily rattle off some reasons why it’s no longer serving us, including:
I ignore my partner when I’m on my phone. We just sit on the couch near each other having conversations with strangers. I don’t like that. I miss him.
It makes me feel shitty about myself. I can’t help comparing myself.
It makes me mad. All I see are more and more stories about how terrible the world is.
Once we start listing the reasons it’s not working for them, we start to feel a little more adamant that we don’t want to be spending very much time on social media. My next question is this (and you can ask it to yourself now): “So, why do you spend so much time on it?” This isn’t a judgment question – it’s a curiosity. I have plenty of my own reasons but I always think it's important to understand our very individual reasons for it. The most common responses I'm hearing are boredom, habit, feeling anxious, and “I don’t know”.
2. Understanding why we're using social media
If we don’t know why we’re drawn to social media, we can start noticing. What happens in the moments leading up to checking your social media feed? What time of day is it, where are you, and what are you doing? For me it often comes when I’m waiting for something. Like waiting for my partner to be done fixing the camera he’s working on so that we can hang out. Or waiting for my coffee to warm up in the microwave for the third time. Or waiting for a show to download. (Darn buffering…) It also happens a lot when I’m taking care of my daughter and getting tired. I love spending time with her, but as any parent knows, it’s exhausting sometimes.
Once we know what hooks us in, we can think about how else we want to meet those needs. Personally, I had to ask myself what I actually wanted to do while I was waiting for my partner to be done fixing his camera. The answer came easily: reading. I really like reading, and I usually have several books on the go. And I usually don’t end up finishing said books before they’re due back at the library. I would be a much happier person if I spent more time actually reading the books that I’m so into reading. As for the times that I’m getting tired with caregiving, feeling drawn toward social media is usually a good cue for me that it’s time to go outside, or have a dance party, or get really into whatever she’s doing, or make myself a coffee.
3. Now what?
Having a better understanding of the impact our social media use is having in our lives and what’s driving it is absolutely foundational. Once we have that figured out, we can start to think about what we want to do with this information. The most common response I get when I ask people about this is “I guess I just won’t check my feed as much”. It seems like just deciding to stop is the most obvious answer and yet! It’s not as simple or easy as that. If it was, I wouldn’t be having so many conversations about it. We think we can just rely on willpower and this leads me to my biggest piece of advice: don’t rely on willpower.
In Kelly McGonigal’s book “The Willpower Instinct” she talks about how willpower is like a muscle. You can work it out and make it stronger, which she recommends, but at some point you’re willpower muscle is going to get tired. And then all the social media and ice cream that you’ve been avoiding will be consumed in a regrettable moment of furious indulgence. (Relate, anyone?).
Rather than relying on will power, I usually encourage people to set up the structures that will help them. I originally got this idea from the HOME Podcast by Laura McKowen and Holly Whitaker.
Structures are the things we set up ahead of time to make life easier. So if we’re working on spending less time on social media, one structure we could set up would be a really long and annoying password to get into our social media accounts. We could delete the apps off our phones. We could leave our phones at home or in the other room. The extra effort it takes to go get our phone unlock it and type in a long password is enough time that the automatic impulse can be brought to our conscious awareness and we can make a decision about whether or not we actually want to do it.
We can also set up structures to make other, more desirable habits a little easier to access. So for me, it might be having a dance party playlist already ready, or a good book on the corner of my nightstand.
I'm a big believer that we can all be more conscious about our social media use and make sure our relationship with it is still serving us. Good luck, all!
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.